A sophomore jinx would be a terrible thing to suffer before you’re old enough to have a legal drink to slug down the disappointment. It’s not something Olivia Rodrigo has to worry about. “Guts,” her second album, does feel at times like “Sour, Too” — a picking-up-right-where-we-left-off extension of her Grammy-winning 2021 debut — but that can only be counted as a good thing, if the spark is still there. It is, in spades. Two years of maturation have not done anything to put a dent in how much accomplished and rocking fun her music was right out of the gate. One of the year’s canniest, most delightful albums, again? Of course it is.
The word “rock” is not used inadvisably here. The Rolling Stones’ long-awaited comeback single was supposed to be the rock event of the week, but don’t be sure it isn’t “Guts,” which has all the glory, guitars and impertinent spirit you might need out of a record at the moment, whether you’re closer to her generation or theirs. Her and co-writer/producer Daniel Nigro‘s take on pop-punk is only a little more than half of the picture here, of course, as piano-based ballads in the realm of “Drivers License” still play a significant part in the picture. But she does love her dynamics, and sometimes the quiet parts seem like an excuse to jolt you back awake when her whispery voice turns into a sweet snarl and she pumps up the volume again.
Anyone who’s heard the first two singles prior to the full-length release has a decent sense of the extremes to which Rodrigo will again be taking things — not just in terms of loudness and softness, but from pure melodrama to pure comic irreverence. “Vampire” at first threatens to maybe be a bit too “Drivers License”-y in its sense of Steinway emo, but she and Nigro have the good sense to add a double-time pulse to the proceedings after the first chorus, giving the misery a cathartic place to go. “Bad Idea, Right?,” meanwhile, is pure guitar banger from the start — and the stuff of laughs, too, as Rodrigo employs the most deadpan part of her voice to pull off a series of punchlines about the folly of ex-sex. She does like to play the droll comedienne in some of these songs, when she’s not emphasizing the world-shattering aspects of breakups in others, as any emotionally attuned 20-year-old reasonably should.
Rodrigo is thinking about her age a lot in a few of these new songs, considering the precipice she’s on as teendom gives way to adulthood, without writing anything quite so cloying as a full-scale “not a girl, not yet a woman” anthem. “I know my age and I act like it,” she sings in the opening number, “All-American Bitch,” a rocker in which she embraces not-so-resting bitchface, for shits ‘n’ giggles. The singer is being somewhat tongue-in-cheek in that irreverent opener, but she’s on to a big part of her appeal, to date: that a lot of her stuff has been flagrantly about being an adolescent, without trying to sound too seasoned before her time. The semi-self-effacing rudeness continues with “Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl” — which is certainly a contender for the ballsiest song title of the year, for starters. There’s no letdown in hearing the actual tune, a take on terminal social awkwardness that turns out to be virtually her tribute to Nirvana. (Here we are now, let us remain awkwardly in the kitchen at the party.)
She moves on to delivering something that sounds a lot more like a tribute to the Cure’s sound with “Pretty Isn’t Pretty,” an otherwise very un-Robert-Smith-like lament about impossible (but sometimes self-imposed) female beauty standards, a topic that will surely mean the most to Rodrigo’s core demographic, but also mean something to 35- and 60-year-old women. Come the end of the album, with “Teenage Dream” — a song that seems to have been written on or around her 19th birthday — Rodrigo really dives deep into what it means for her teen-prodigy status to be coming to a close: “When am i gonna stop being great for my age and just start being good… / When am i gonna stop being wise beyond my years and just start being wise… / You’re only 19, but I fear that they already got all the best parts of me, and I’m sorry that I couldn’t always be your teenage dream.”
It’s nice of her to at least entertain the prospect that, with all her acclaim, she has been graded on an adolescent curve so far, but the woman doth self-protest too much. You probably don’t make an album as good as “Sour,” and now “Guts,” without having the self-confidence to know that you’re killing it, by any adult standard, even if you’re writing at times from the p.o.v. of a kid. But Rodrigo has been able to maintain the relatability of a lovable loser by apparently doing what most of the great superstar songwriters do: find a boyfriend or two who’ll make you feel less than in copious enough amounts to fuel a dozen or so tracks that balance deep insecurity with vengeful cockiness.
Or something in-between. “Get Him Back!,” one of the album’s most charming tracks, trades on the ambivalence of its title: Does she mean “get him back” in terms of revenge, or in terms of winning back his love? It’s both, as the song’s wordplay works out: “I want to key his car, I want to make him lunch,” she declares, in one of the most flagrantly mixed messages in pop. “I want to meet his mom,” she coos, “just to tell her her son sucks.” It takes a strong woman to write a song that squishy.
“Get Him Back!” has a sort of gang-vocal chorus that may make you think of, say, “Cruel Summer” or “We Are Never Getting Back Together.” Which makes this as good a time as any to bring up the whole Taylor Swift issue and, their personal dynamics aside, just how influenced by Swift Rodrigo is. The answer, clearly, is very; there probably won’t be any copyright issues this time, but you can hear her heroine’s phrasing or sensibilities here and there — in fairly brilliant absorptive ways. It would be weird, and probably terribly wrong, if Rodrigo weren’t deeply steeped in some of those mannerisms that Swift has made into a whole new pop lexicon: It would be like a rock band in the early ’70s going out of its way to not be influenced by the Beatles. But of course she’s also sublimated a lot of other likely previous-gen sources, from Avril to Billie (along with the aformentioned Kurt and Cure nods). In this album’s spunkiest or scream-iest moments, you get the satisfying rush of what it might feel like if Taylor Swift decided to not just befriend but be Paramore for a day.
So, are any of the songs about Swift? That seemed like a real stretch, when, in recent weeks, some fans supposed that maybe “Vampire” was about her hero-as-frenemy, where every real-world indication was that the single came out of a very specific, known, romantic relationship. But having said that, there’s another song on the new album that will probably inspire a lot of speculation along those same lines, maybe with more merit this time: “Lacy.” At the very least, whoever might have sparked the lyrics, it’s a ballad that quite deftly traces how admiration, jealousy and resentment can add up to a weird cocktail in a same-sex friendship. “I feel your compliments like bullets on skin,” Rodrigo sings — and suddenly you’re put in mind of how “Bad Blood” might come off if it was slowed down to a beautiful ballad and made to be really ambivalent and self-owning instead of strictly angry. “I despise my jealous eyes and how hard they fell for you / Yeah, I despise my rotten mind and how much it worships you,” Rodrigo sings. It’d be bracing stuff even if we had no imagined context to try to squeeze it into.
There are a lot of moments in “Guts” in which Rodrigo tries to be a brat, and succeeds, quite winningly. But wisdom becomes her, too: “Hurt people hurt people, and we both drew blood, but man those cuts were never equal,” she sings in “The Grudge,” quite adeptly balancing therapy-speak with a sense of defensive pride. “Making the Bed,” meanwhile, may represent Rodrigo’s biggest leap toward a more seasoned self-realization on this record — a song that eschews retribution or blame in favoring the thought that she’s lying in a bed of her own making. (Looking inward to accept responsibility: it’s brutal in there.)
But for however long it lasts, let’s enjoy the Rodrigo who’s impudent enough to work F-bombs into nearly every other song, and who isn’t bashful about painting herself as a confused, pissed, sub-21 nerd, with a lot of wicked humor to go with all that melodrama. Not growing up on any record any more than she needed to takes some guts, actually. As clever as the album consistently is, it still maintains the aura she’s established of transmitting real-talk teen vérité right into the grooves. Wherever her 20s take her from here, may it turn out to be just as affectionate, cheeky and brash.