Olivia Rodrigo's 'Sour' Is A Sleek Gen Z Tale Of Bad Affairs
The 18-year-old singer-songwriter, who rose to fame 5 months ago with her single 'Drivers License', is already among pop’s foremost stars
The global mega-hit 'Drivers License', released in January, put Olivia Rodrigo on the fast track to pop superstardom.
Her tear-jerking, piano ballad of shattered teenage dreams was so perfectly formed it could have been a smash at any point since the 1950s, built around a sentimental narrative of a learner driver passing her test only to find herself left behind by the boy to whose home she’s driving — boo-hoo.
Following speedily in its wake, the fierceness and focus of Rodrigo’s streamlined debut album, Sour, suggests that the 18-year-old is going to be a real threat behind the wheel.
That title offers a tartly mischievous response to the starlet’s perceived sweetness. Rodrigo has risen up as a Disney child-actress on American TV, putting her on the same trajectory as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez.
She plays an actor playing a character in High School Music: The Musical: The Series, a self-consciously ludicrous title that reflects the self-referencing meta-fictional focus of modern youth culture.
Suffice to say that Rodrigo knows her pop history and seems intent on jumping straight past the damaged innocent phase of teen stardom to put herself firmly in control of her own destiny.
She knows her pop references too. She is young enough for Taylor Swift to loom like a veteran all-time-great on her horizon, and Rodrigo follows Swift’s core model of sleek traditional songcraft, with a frisson of modern production, and pithy, diaristic lyrics about the heightened emotions of young love.
To this, stir in a touch of Lorde’s widescreen harmonies and Billie Eilish’s whispery intimate vocals, and you get an accessible alt-pop template that's quite old-fashioned but still spiky enough to be hip.
The final ingredient goes further back, drawing on the rocky brashness of 1990s singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette and 2000s pop-punk princess Avril Lavigne.
Co-writer and producer Dan Nigro’s background is in the alternative rock scene, and there's a satisfying crunch to how he balances acoustic guitars with distorted electrics and wonky synths, ensuring that Sour never sinks into the sentimental gloop lurking close to the surface of Rodrigo’s oeuvre.
Rodrigo specialises in songs that cast her as the downtrodden victim of careless love with thoughtless boys. But the passive-aggressive wit gleaming through her sharp couplets about unfaithful exes might make you question who really has the power in the relationship.
“It took you two weeks to go off and date her / I guess you didn’t cheat but you’re still a traitor” she trills on the singalong 'Traitor', purpose built to get arenas of devoted fans braying “You betrayed me!” Even the toy-box hook of 'Deja Vu' sounds sarcastic, as Rodrigo mock-innocently wonders: “Do you call her, almost say my name? / ’Cause let’s be honest we kinda do sound the same.”
There's a fine line between being perceived as a sympathetic innocent and a jealous, obsessive stalker, and Rodrigo gleefully crosses it on the sarcastic 'Good 4 U', a chunky belter congratulating an ex for moving on: “Well good for you, I guess you moved on really easily / You found a new girl and it only took a couple of weeks.” The songs charges cathartically along with mounting hysteria: “Well screw that, and screw you / You will never have to hurt the way you know that I do.”
A dreamy interlude allows Rodrigo briefly to contemplate whether she shares any of the blame, before she concludes otherwise: “Maybe I’m too emotional / But your apathy’s like a wound in salt.”
Such navel-gazing self-obsession may be an honest reflection of teenage states of mind but when you pile one sarcastic heartbreak on top of another there is a danger of toppling over to pastiche.
It is a relief when the album concludes with a rare moment of empathy and compassion for others on the touching anthem 'Hope Ur Ok'. Rodrigo will have to widen her emotional focus and subject matter to fulfil her stated ambition to be a really great songwriter, but she has time on her side.
Sour is a melodramatic pop opera of broken teen dreams: right now, it puts Rodrigo in the driver’s seat, and woe betide anyone who gets in her way.
– The Daily Telegraph