Album Review: Olivia Rodrigo is ‘Sour’ on her milquetoast debut album

The Pop phenom’s half-baked debut doesn’t give enough insight into who she is as an artist.

Olivia Rodrigo is Gen Z’s first pop superstar. Born during Bush Jr.’s first term, the 18-year-old starlet no less than exploded onto the scene in January with her debut single “drivers license,” which debuted atop every major chart worldwide and garnered 750 million streams on Spotify. It was the instant success story that emulated the rise of Ariana Grande in 2013, from child star to pop phenom, but even more precipitously. With her second No. 1 single likely on the way with “good 4 u,” Rodrigo is undoubtedly here to stay, and reshape pop in her wake.

With the imminent comeback of pop-rock to radio waves – exhibited by indie-pop trendsetters like beabodoobee and Rina Sawayama, and established acts like Miley Cyrus – Rodrigo’s sound couldn’t speak more to the needs of the present moment. The aforementioned “good 4 u” drew (favorable) comparisons to Paramore‘s “Misery Business” with its simmering bassline, and the album opener “brutal” similarly channels that teenage angst albeit in a more passive-aggressive tone. That song is easily the highlight amongst its eight other emotionally incontinent siblings.

In years past, reviewers would slam any album from a teenager that encapsulated their adolescent worldview, but that is undoubtedly this record’s appeal. Rodrigo’s lyrics flow like an inner monologue, the eye roll impossible not visualize on lines like “Well, good for you, you look happy and healthy / Not me, if you ever cared to ask.” It’s an unfiltered view of the world from a high school lens, so instantly relatable and endearing. At the same time, however, her fatalist lyricism is unpolished as a result, her stream of consciousness not refined to make her lyrical jabs puncture.

Stanza upon stanza ultimately boil down to hollow tropes about hoping her ex is happy now, resenting his new girl, and finding their break up unfathomable to begin with. The delivery on these lines is similarly underwhelming, with too little bite in her sound to make up for this difference. Undoubtedly a break-up album, SOUR more than hits on its most powerful and relevant emotions: heartbreak, anger, and loathing. With track and track hitting the same topic from the same angle, there’s a level of predictability that’s great for a marketing campaign but a less than fulfilling experience for a listener. And while this is a perfectly reasonable or expected trope for an adolescent romance album, it remains true that her collaborators – producers, songwriters, etc. – didn’t push her to explore emotions beyond this in a way that could have created a much more compelling listen. Rather than having her style or musicianship define the break-up, the break-up is defining her and her work. Beyond the lyrical monotony, the melodic and harmonic components are similarly one-dimensional and even bare.

What is worth highlighting with those criticisms though, is that Rodrigo’s project was likely put on the fast track as soon as she received her, ahem, “Drivers License,” which was pre-destined to produce a non-stellar output (isn’t that right, Carly Rae?). This was even more fatal here, as teenagers feel the weight of each emotion in their full intensity, crashing upon them and holding them down. Here, it seems that Rodrigo wasn’t given enough time to feel more than just the weight of her heartbreak.

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