Olivia Rodrigo: Sour review – cathartic rage at teenage heartbreak

The 18-year-old songwriter makes good on her record-breaking debut single with a first album that metabolises anger, jealousy and bewilderment into pop euphoria

Even in a world where streaming’s rise means chart records are broken all the time, the debut single by Disney star Olivia Rodrigo is an anomaly. Upon the release of Drivers License in January, it had the biggest first week for any song ever on Spotify – then hit the 100m streams mark faster than any other track on the platform had before. It debuted at No 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed there for eight weeks – only the seventh song ever to do so. In the UK, it topped the charts for nine weeks and broke the record for the highest single-day streams ever for a non-Christmas song.

The artwork for Sour.
The artwork for Sour. Photograph: PR Handout

And yet, both the song and the album it is taken from are propelled by an energy that’s about as far from cold, number-crunching rationality as it is possible to get. Drivers License – a portentous power ballad backed by plummeting drones and minimalist percussion – was written among the ruins of first love. At 18, Rodrigo, sentimental, furious, mired in self-pity, is staggered at the way her ex-boyfriend has moved on (“I just can’t imagine how you could be so OK now that I’m gone,” begins the chorus crescendo). This isn’t just about romantic rejection: for Rodrigo, reality has been irrevocably ruptured, and she is deeply disturbed. No wonder. The realisation that somebody you once knew and loved can unilaterally revert back to being a complete stranger – and by doing so seemingly erase all the time you spent together – is among the biggest and most unpleasant shocks of adulthood.

In a satisfying mirroring of form and content, almost every single song on Sour –written entirely by Rodrigo and producer Daniel Nigro – deals with the enormity of this development baldly, bluntly, and with none of the meaningless word salad that popstars often hide behind. Rodrigo imagines her ex recycling dates with his new squeeze over the Taylor Swiftian pop of Deja Vu (“Don’t act like we didn’t do that shit too”). The seething pop-punk of Good 4 U has her incredulous at the irony of everything: “I guess that therapist I found for you, she really helped.” She uncovers yet more hypocrisy on the sad and stately Traitor - “Remember I brought her up and you told me I was paranoid?” - and is fundamentally bruised on Enough for You: “I don’t want your sympathy, I just want myself back.” Rodrigo uses the album as a way to do that, by setting down the terms of her own reality, over and over again.

And if she sounds like a broken record, that’s the point: what makes Sour such a great album is that its maker is unafraid to make a nuisance of herself. In an interview with the Guardian earlier this month, Rodrigo said she was proud the record revolved around emotions that “aren’t really socially acceptable especially for girls: anger, jealousy, spite, sadness”. Even the title is a reclamation of the word “sour”, with its connotations of bitter, undesirable women. Considering that women are told to feign disinterest in men lest they scare them off, writing a whole album about how furious and devastated you are that your ex has forgotten you seems like the sort of thing any good friend would strongly advise against. But the shades of cringeworthiness that run through the whole enterprise is the reason why it is so cathartic, and so charming.

Olivia Rodrigo: Good 4 U – video

Of course, the emotions Rodrigo mines are not exclusive to adolescence, but Sour is still a gloriously teenage album. Vulnerability has recently become a watchword for a generation of young (and youth-oriented) musicians who are keen to open up about tumultuous inner lives that revolve around anxiety, low self-esteem and romantic rejection. Rodrigo’s emotional palate is not restricted to that: there is much rage here and the generic grammar to match. The brilliant opener Brutal starts with elegiac strings before Rodrigo insists things get “like, messy” and the song swiftly morphs into anthemic 90s alt-rock with pregnant pauses suggestive of a droll eye-roll, in the vein of the Breeders’ Cannonball. Good 4 U, meanwhile, channels a more recent strain of rock: a slice of electro-tinged pop-punk, it shares perhaps slightly too much DNA with Paramore’s Misery Business – but it’s hard to care when it metabolises spitting fury into infectious euphoria so expertly.

A couple of songs have Rodrigo singing over fingerpicked guitar figures in sweetly folky style (Enough for You, Favorite Crime), while Deja Vu plays with fuzzy, crashing percussion and a mosquito synth-line. The majority of Sour, however, is rooted in the style of its breakout hit: Adele meets Taylor, lovely and unadventurous, thoughtful but hardly breaking new ground. Which isn’t quite the same as calling it basic or staid. From the way the seatbelt alarm sound births the opening piano line to the gut-wrenching drones of doom that sporadically appear low in the mix, the other heritage fuelling Drivers License is the precise, sparsely furnished production pioneered by the xx that now forms the basis for a huge amount of modern pop. Rodrigo carries the baton with class and mass appeal, even if things do get a bit samey after a while.

Miraculously, the subject matter never seems over repetitive, but Rodrigo loses her nerve right at the end. On closing number Hope Ur Ok, she turns her gaze outwards to sing about people she once knew who have experienced hardship in their lives. It’s as close to a palate cleanser as a song with such a cloying sentiment can get, but thankfully doesn’t overshadow the glorious myopia of Sour: a collection of polished, precociously accomplished pop that doubles as one of the most gratifyingly undignified breakup albums ever made.


Rachel Aroesti

The GuardianTramp

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