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Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘Sour’ is One Sweet Entreé Into a Lifetime of Music-Making
May 21, 2021 -  72 

Chances are that, on the first or second listen, Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album, “Sour,” will remind you of Billie Eilish’s own freshman effort from a little over two years ago. It’s not so much that, at 18, Rodrigo is still young enough to count a 19-year-old as an influence — although you do get the distinct impression at times that she’s taken a few lessons from Eilish to go along with the many, many pieces of homework she’s taken home from Taylor Swift. It’s more to do with feeling that same sensation with “Sour” that you might have when “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” first came across the midnight transom: If she’s this strong in her first very first at-bat, how mighty might she be when she’s 30? And then, why are we worrying about a dozen years down the line when there’s an album this good right in front of us? How sweet it is.

The good news is, a lot of the until-now-unheard tracks from “Sour” are even better than the three tracks that have already been out there. And those three tracks were already star-making, most of all, of course, “Drivers License,” which pretty well established that she’d passed “go” as a prodigy without wasting too much undue time with a learner’s permit. “Drivers License” put into motion Rodrigo’s penchant for turning basic teen melodrama into nearly the sturm und drang of opera, and the two subsequent singles, “Deja Vu” and “Good 4 U,” complemented that initial impression by making sure everyone knew she had as much pop-punk princess in her as balladic drama queen. But maybe none of these three singles went quite as far as some of the others on the new album do in establishing that she’s capable of some nifty turns of phrase and deeper insights to go with the oh my god I’m going to die up-and-down dynamics of those preview songs. She gives good stridency as a Young Woman Wronged, but her falsetto is a lovely thing that really deserves its own scholarship so it can go off to college, grad school and beyond, too.

The glory, though, of “Sour” is how unabashedly teenage it is. Maybe that goes without saying for a singer-songwriter who was 17 when she made this album … but actually, no, it doesn’t. Because the music industry has always loved teenagers — what’s not to love about having someone under contract who has that many more years ahead of her before she ages out of the demo? — but blatantly teenaged music is another thing. Different radio formats have long resisted songs that actually play up adolescent themes, for fear of alienating the product-buying 20-something listeners who don’t want to feel like they’re still sitting at the kids’ table. That’s why Swift ran into skepticism at the start singing about high school crushes in the likes of “Our Song,” until she was undeniable to the gatekeepers. Maybe even Swift wouldn’t have been quite bold enough, though, to put out as a first single a song that specifically pegged her as just having made her first pass through the DMV. So it’s a happy thing to report that Rodrigo kind of doubles down on her youth at various points throughout “Sour.” Rodrigo’s precocity goes without saying, to anyone who’s already heard her, but she’s still — delightfully — acting her age, not her deal size.

“I think I think too much ‘bout kids that don’t know me,” she sings in “Jealousy, Jealousy,” and it may set you to pondering the last time someone used the word “kid” on a superstar album to describe herself or her contemporaries. (Of course, she doesn’t use it nearly as often as she uses the words “fuck” and “fucking” as lyrical exclamations, so it’s not like we’re talking Kidz Bop territory here.) Rodrigo’s willingness to typecast herself as a person of youth for the time being is up front right at the outset, in the opening “Brutal,” which is like a “Summertime Blues” for the 2020s: “I’m so insecure I think/ That I’ll die before I drink… / I’m so sick of 17 / Where’s my fuckin’ teenage dream? / If someone tells me one more time / Enjoy your youth I’m gonna cry… / They say these are the golden years But I wish I could disappear.” The kicker: “And I’m not cool and I’m not smart / And I can’t even parallel park.” Alice Cooper did this teen angst thing almost as well when he sang “Eighteen,” but he did sound about 108 at the time. Olivia Rodrigo, for her part, does not sound a day over Skipped Senior Year to Become a Superstar.

“Brutal,” the song that makes it most clear she listened to her mom’s Hole records, also sets the autobiographical tone right away, which, if you’ve followed the IRL “Drivers License” drama, you know will be a key component. In the midst of the song’s cranky teen blues, she blurts, “I’m so tired that I might quit my job, start a new life.” She probably doesn’t mean a part-time job after school at the soda fountain, you may suss, as she quickly adds: “And they’d all be so disappointed / Cause who am I if not exploited.” That couplet ought to make Disney fear for a third season of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” or maybe it’s just a passing moment of feeling caught up in the star-making machinery. Anyway, it’s the only time that she really comments in the album, obliquely or otherwise, on her position as a baby star. Because most of the rest of the album avoids that general ennui to focus on the very specific sourness of living without the boy who got away.

It might suck to be him right now — whoever the brown-eyed guy is; who could even speculate on such a thing? — but it’s good for everyone digging into the album that Rodrigo is so invested in being what Hayley Williams once called the misery business. Of the 11 songs on “Sour,” approximately or exactly eight form a downright concept album about one particular breakup. At least it seems to be just one: There are repeat references to the dude in question taking up with someone else exactly two weeks after their split, and other lyrics about her shock at how rapidly she’s been gotten over. This is a theme that works for songs that come out of divorce court, too, but her sheer admitted obsessiveness with the “Traitor” (“It took you two weeks to go off and date her,” goes the rhyme) is something that would seem a little unbecoming for a 40-year-old writer but seems perfectly, magnificently in line at 17. No matter how many generations you might be past what Rodrigo is experiencing in these songs, she makes you believe that her breakup is the stuff of an apocalypse now. And you’ve got to admire her commitment to keeping with the title emotion and not having even a single romantically un-spurned song, for variety or anything else. It’s some grand lemonade.

That Swift is her major inspiration in squeezing these lemons into song is nothing she tries to hide. When “Deja Vu” came out as her second single a few weeks back, she didn’t wait for anyone to notice that there’s a part of the song — where she’s singing “I know you got deja vu” — that sounds kind of like that angry-chanty thing that Swift occasionally works into her latter-day songs. Rodrigo came out in an interview and acknowledged that some of the arrangement was prompted by thinking of Swift’s “Cruel Summer,” so you don’t even have to go through the whole TS discography till you get to the moment where she was singing “‘I love you,’ ain’t that the worst thing you ever heard?” and have that “Oh, yeeeah” moment of recognition. Her indebtedness to Swift is mostly non-specific — except for “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back,” which drove fans in both camps a little crazy Thursday when the songwriting credits were revealed and Swift and Jack Antonoff appeared as co-writers on that one. It wasn’t an actual collaboration; Rodrigo just lifted the piano curlicue behind the verses on Swift’s “New Year’s Day,” the closing number of “Reputation,” and used that memorable riff for her verses, too. Honestly, Rodrigo could have come up with an entirely different basic track for her song and saved herself the shared royalties as well as the comparisons. But she also could have not used numerals for the title of “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back” if she didn’t love the idea of having 1 + 3 = 13 as an overt homage to her spiritual mother. “Sour” is actually a very romantic album, when it comes down to it.. with Rodrigo unabashedly being in love with the confessional style and legacy of Swift.

It might get to be a bit much if Swift was the only one Rodrigo made you think of, but there are plenty of other ancestors to go around, including the aforementioned Williams, of Paramore fame, or Avril Lavigne for the moments when things get louder. For the moments when they get a lot softer, yes, it’s Eilish who comes to mind when there’s a kind of hush that falls over the proceedings — as it often does on an album with as many solo piano or solo finger-picking moments as “Sour.” Maybe the most Billie-esque track is “Jealousy, Jealousy,” partly because it opens with the kind of swell bass line you can imagine the bass-aholic Finneas coming up with, and some fuzzy guitar kicking in for punctuation, before her rising, multi-tracked vocals turn into a thing of choral beauty worthy of the most exquisite Eilish ballads like “I Love You.”

The song is no less beautiful when she’s singing “I’m so sick of myself / I’d rather be, rather be anyone, anyone else.” As Us magazine would say: The teen stars — they’re just like us! Self-exhausted, if not, in Rodrigo’s case, quite self-loathing. That the girl whom most other girls would be jealous of right now sings an entire song about wanting to do her own whole-body transfer into another identity, and kind of sounds like she means it, will only make her more relatable, of course. Think of the thousands or millions of young people about to be jealous of Olivia Rodrigo being jealous. It’s how pop works.

For her own Finneas, Rodrigo has found her brother from another mother in Daniel Nigro, who produced every song, played a lion’s share of the instruments and co-wrote all but a couple of the songs with the singer. He’s probably getting more streams in a minute with Rodrigo than he ever did in a year as the lead singer/guitarist of the indie band As Tall as Lions, and he’s surely not sorry about the tradeoff. One of the smartest things Rodrigo has done in her young life is make an investment in Nigro as a sympathetic collaborator. She clearly has a love for ’90s and oughts alt-rock, and she could have found someone who just adds a little hard-edged guitar riff here or there the way Dr. Luke used to with Kelly Clarkson or his other charges, but in Nigro, Rodrigo has someone who can go all-in with her on the abrasive stuff — where she’s not afraid to harden her lovely voice into something a little talkier or shriller — but also has the chops to be with her when she feels forlornly pretty, or prettily forlorn, and wants to do a chamber-folk thing.

If there’s anything that feels slightly like a hole (not to be confused with a Hole) on the album, it’s the kind of medium-tempo songs that might fully fill in the gaps between the three or four really loud songs and the dominant simple ‘n’ quiet ones. It’s hardly a major failing — with any luck, they’ll have lots of time to explore lots of spaces in-between the extreme dynamics that characterize “Sour.” Anyway, the best song on the album might be one that does kind of fall halfway between: “Happier,” a mid-sized, 6/8 ballad with a clever-but-real lyrical twist. After establishing the same lyrical bona fides as some of the other insta-memoir tracks (“Broke up a month ago,” etc.), Rodrigo takes the high road and decides she wishes her recent ex and his possible new love well. Or semi-well. Just not as well as what they were sharing six weeks ago. Or as Rodrigo puts it: “Think of me fondly when your hands are on her / I hope you’re happy, but don’t be happier.” That rhyme scheme is either a little rough or brilliant — I’m not sure which — but it works like sad gangbusters.

Not every lyric on the album is an instant classic, but among the verses that work just because they seem so unfiltered and teen-real, Rodrigo surely has her moments where it’s clear she’s been a quick study, sitting at the feet of the female pop singer-songwriter masters: “I kept quiet so I could keep you.” “Tried so hard to be everything that you liked / Just for you to say you’re not the compliment type.” “Doe-eyed as you buried me / One heart broke, four hands bloody” — now, there’s one her elders might wish they’d come up with. And the greatest thing she’s learned from Swift is how much specific details make the song (and, yes, make the gossip columns… but mostly make the song). Eye color, automobile color, number of days passed since the last romantic accident — these are the things that keep a young audience that’s actually been raised on confessional Top 40 fodder invested.

Even though Rodrigo rarely veers away from the album’s black-and-white focus on the aggravations of young love, there’s a glimpse of a Technicolor future in the closing track, “Hope Ur Okay,” in which the singer suddenly goes empathic for a world she secretly knows is suffering more than she is. The first verse recalls a boy she knew who was beaten by his possibly literally Bible-thumping parents; the second is about a probably lesbian middle school classmate whose “parents hated who she loved.” In using these anecdotes of young people encountering greater adversity than hers, Rodrigo almost seems to be doing her version of a Brandi Carlile song — it’s like “The Joke: Junior Version.” And it works.

But as much as you might want to cheer on the steady flashes of maturity that show up in her songwriting, the finest lyrical moment might come in “Good 4 U,” when she gets back to adolescent basics: “It’s like we never even happened, baby. What… the fuck… is up! Screw that! Screw you!” She may someday put pen to sheet music with the eloquence of Joni Mitchell, but we might never love her more than when she’s a profane kid, bluntly and prosaically spitting a verse about the end of a relationship like it’s the end of the world, because, of course, it is. Until album two, which we can only hope is as ridiculously good as this one.


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