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HomeMusicOlivia Rodrigo spills her 'Guts' on bubble-gum rock masterpiece

Olivia Rodrigo spills her ‘Guts’ on bubble-gum rock masterpiece

When Olivia Rodrigo has big, messy feelings to process, she tends to do it behind the wheel.

That’s where the singer-songwriter set “Drivers License,” the instant-smash breakup ballad that two years ago vaulted her from a teenage gig in the Disney universe to A-list pop stardom complete with a quadruple-platinum debut and a Grammy Award for best new artist.

And now it’s where she finds herself in “Making the Bed,” a hazy lament that arrives halfway through her knockout of a second album, “Guts.”

“Every night I wake up from this one recurring dream / I’m driving through the city and the brakes go out on me,” she sings, her voice trembling with regret against the lonely-sounding twang of a reverbed electric guitar. In the dream she “can’t stop at the red light” and “can’t swerve off the road,” which — Rodrigo being Rodrigo — she diagnoses as a manifestation of her anxiety (“I read somewhere it’s ’cause my life feels so out of control”) before she drops a couplet that perfectly crystallizes this emotional chaos: “I tell someone I love them just as a distraction / They tell me that they love me like I’m some tourist attraction.”

Yes, “Guts” is the inevitable what-hath-fame-wrought album from a 20-year-old star who was already pondering the wages of celebrity on 2021’s “Sour.” Back then, Rodrigo’s experience as an actor in the durable “High School Musical” franchise — and, of course, as an inhabitant of the digital panopticon that is social media — gave her plenty to rue.

“Sour” spun off a pair of No. 1 singles in “Drivers License” and the thrashing “Good 4 U” and brought plaudits from Billy Joel and Cardi B. But its enormous success invited an entirely different level of scrutiny, such that Rodrigo opens the 12-songs-in-39-minutes “Guts” with “All-American Bitch,” an alternately wistful and punky song about the impossible balancing act she feels compelled to pull off as a woman entering young adulthood in the spotlight.

“I’m grateful all the time / I’m sexy and I’m kind / I’m pretty when I cry,” she sings, each line heavier with resentment than the last. Other tunes describe punishing female beauty standards (“Pretty Isn’t Pretty”), the quarter-life crisis of a fresh-faced prodigy (“Teenage Dream”) and Rodrigo’s general unpreparedness for Hollywood schmoozing (“Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl,” in which she tragically/hilariously recounts “searching ‘how to start a conversation’ on a website”).

Goes another key lyric from “Making the Bed”: “I got the things I wanted — it’s just not what I imagined.”

Indeed, Rodrigo’s bitterest discovery here is that, for all its perks, megastardom turns out to be a real disruptor of one’s ability to connect person-to-person. As on Billie Eilish’s “Happier Than Ever” — just one of several sophomore LPs that “Guts” evokes, along with Hole’s “Live Through This” and Paramore’s “Riot!” — Rodrigo intertwines her tales of social-professional disillusionment with stories of romantic betrayal. On “Vampire,” the album’s rock-operatic lead single that recently topped the Hot 100 and is likely to score numerous Grammy nominations, she roasts a “fame-f—er” of an ex who lives in a “castle built off people you pretend to care about”; “Get Him Back!” has her plotting revenge against (and maybe longing to reunite with) a preening rich guy who displays her like a trophy.

Rodrigo also sings about what appear to be her frayed relationships with two of her musical idols: Taylor Swift, whose retroactive songwriting credit on Rodrigo’s debut seems to have inspired “The Grudge” — “You have everything and you still want more,” she wails — and Gracie Abrams, whose whispery indie-folk sound she borrows for “Lacy,” about a “dazzling starlet” with ribbons in her hair.

“I despise my jealous eyes and how hard they fell for you,” Rodrigo sings, her breath almost uncomfortably hot on the microphone. “I despise my rotten mind and how much it worships you.”

As those lines make clear, Rodrigo’s flair for melodrama has grown only more vivid since “Drivers License.” But “Guts” showcases a sense of humor that “Sour” merely hinted at; the album really comes alive at its funniest, as in “Get Him Back!” and “Bad Idea Right?,” both Gen Z dating satires where you can hear her actor’s background in pitch-perfect line readings that shift between comic registers on a dime — from naturalistic to screwball, faux-earnest to deadpan.

There’s more rock here too than on her debut. Working closely with producer Dan Nigro, who also oversaw “Sour,” Rodrigo pulls from emo, new wave, shoegaze, even Beastie Boys-style rap-rock, switching up guitar tones and drum sounds to give each track a distinct signature. And her vocal phrasing is flexible enough to keep up with the changes: Just listen to the way she rides the lopsided beat in “Get Him Back!” or the path she slices through Nigro’s beautifully distressed guitar fuzz in “Love Is Embarrassing.”

Among the many other lessons she’s learned from Swift, this talent for embodying various sides of her character feels like a defining attribute of “Guts” — and she’s made only two studio albums compared to Swift’s 10.

However painful she found it to cut in Swift for her perceived contributions to “Sour,” Rodrigo fills her follow-up with easily identifiable references to other pop-culture artifacts: “All-American Bitch” quotes Joan Didion; “Love Is Embarrassing” nods to Sky Ferreira; “Teenage Dream” recycles a song title of Katy Perry’s and echoes a twisty-turny melody of Lana Del Rey’s.

Yet Rodrigo’s emotional presence is so strong throughout “Guts” — so believable even at its most unrelatable — that you never lose the sense of a specific young person navigating a trial of her own making.

“When am I gonna stop being wise beyond my years and just start being wise?” she asks in “Teenage Dream.”

Looks like right now.

This story originally appeared on LA Times

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