Olivia Rodrigo – ‘Sour’ review: this year’s breakout star channels ’90s alt-rock

After 'Drivers License', pop's brightest new thing proves she's not just a flash-in-the-pan, but a multidimensional artist who's in it for the long haul

Every once in a while, a pop music juggernaut comes along and whisks you away. Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘Drivers License’ is that undeniable song of 2021 so far, a tear-jerking ballad that smashed streaming records as hard as it took a hammer to our hearts. To say its achievements were not bad for a debut single is a whopping understatement. The twinkling ‘deja vu’ was a similarly brilliant follow-up, but now comes the real test: showing what else she’s got.

The answer is: a lot. On her debut album, ‘Sour’, the 18-year-old singer-songwriter puts herself forward as pop’s most promising new megastar – one with the talent, musical personality and smarts necessary to craft a long and illustrious career. With typical Gen-Z versatility, she hops from genre to genre without losing sight of herself and doses her songs with bitingly specific details that go full-circle from being precisely personal to universally relatable.

Rodrigo has said she took big dollops of inspiration from the women of ‘90s alt-rock, and you can hear their touch immediately on opening track ‘brutal’, one of ‘Sour’’s biggest bangers. Its wiry guitar chug is pure Elastica, its creator’s exasperated “God, it’s brutal out here” her own version of the most iconic part of The Breeders’ ‘Last Splash’. The way she sings the chorus – pitch set permanently to ‘urgent’ – and the reverberating production make it sound like a polished-up riot grrrl recording.

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Latest single ‘good 4 u’ fast forwards in the musical timeline to early ’00s pop-punk, but you can pinpoint more than a trace of Alanis Morissette in its lyrics. Her self-aware, sarcastic missives are laced with bitterness, a 2021 update on the anger and angst of ‘You Oughta Know’. Concerned with an ex who is doing better with their new girlfriend, the song excavates the stinging sensation of seeing someone moving on up in their life, leaving you in their dust. “Good for you – I guess that you’ve been working on yourself,” Rodrigo sings in a dangerous purr. “I guess that therapist I found for you, she really helped/ Now you can be a better man for your brand new girl.”

Later, in the final chorus, she repeats her observation, “Good for you / You’re doing great out there without me, baby”, but adds one last acerbic note: “Like a damn sociopath!” There’s pain in the way she yells it out, but also liberation and the kind of twisted euphoria that comes from screaming your deepest feelings into the ether; a raw, adrenaline-surging high that makes your ears ring and your pulse go at lightning speed.

A lot of ‘Sour’ explores emotions that feel elicit, skipping boldly into dark corners that young women are conditioned not to explore. Rodrigo illuminates them brazenly, presenting a pinpoint accurate portrait of what it’s like to be young and female in the 21st century – but also, thanks to that power of relatability, in any age. On the folky ‘enough for you’, she details modifying herself to attract a former partner (“I wore make-up when we dated ’cause I thought you’d like me more/ If I looked like the other prom queens that I know you loved before”), while the aforementioned ‘good 4 u’ brings searing female rage to the fore.

The shadowy, bass-led ‘jealousy, jealousy’ takes on the insecurity complexes slapped on us by social media. “I’m so sick of myself,” she sighs on its chorus. “I’d rather be, rather be / Anyone, anyone else / But jealousy… started following me.” Back on ‘brutal’, she crackles: “I’m so sick of 17, where’s my fucking teenage dream? / If someone tells me one more time ‘enjoy your youth’ I’m gonna cry.” Moments later, she lists her failings, ending with a comedic example of just how lame she thinks she is: “I’m not cool and I’m not smart / And I can’t even parallel park.

There are plenty of songs that fit more into the ‘drivers license’ vein of slow and weepy too – perhaps a touch too many. ‘Traitor’ is a gorgeous song about feeling betrayed when you see your ex stepping into a new relationship while you’re still reeling from your separation, Rodrigo narrating in a devastated whisper: “You didn’t cheat but you’re still a traitor.” For every track like that, though, there’s a ‘1 step forward, 3 steps back’ – a perfectly fine song but one that leaves little impression sandwiched between Rodrigo’s gigantic debut single and ‘deja vu’.

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When your first release is a track as ubiquitous as ‘drivers license’, it must be tough going to make a whole album that matches up. For the most part, Rodrigo has passed the bar she set on that single, sharing with us an almost-masterpiece that’s equal parts confident, cool and exhilaratingly real. This is no flash-in-the-pan artist, but one we’ll be living with for years to come.

Details 

Label: Polydor
Release date: May 21, 2021

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