Monday, May 24, 2021

Review: Sour • Olivia Rodrigo

Millennials, welcome to the fourth generation of Disney Channel: They’re allowed to swear in songs, they’re rarely on actual television, and they’re way cooler than our Mouseketeers and children’s sitcom stars ever were. But hey, spin-off variants of High School Musical and alleged love triangles are still burning bright in the club.

Olivia Rodrigo rose up and over her leading role in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (two colons, no kidding) not through a Radio Disney push or overachieving show tie-in, but instead atop a Tik Tok viral hit released under Geffen Records – a semi-anonymous move that presented her as a brand new figure within the typical adult's scope of the celebrity world. Spending eight weeks at number one in the United States, “Drivers License” fastens one of a teenager’s most prominent milestones to a ferocious first heartbreak via a bedroom pop anthem: “I guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me, ‘cause you said forever, now I drive alone past your street,” she sings before collapsing into a billowing bridge. The song is the album’s emotional linchpin, but it doesn’t set its trajectory: “I didn’t want to make an entire record that sounded like ‘Drivers License.’ There’s no fun in that for me,” she told NME in a pre-release profile. Instead, she and producer Daniel Nigro scrapbook her favorite musical influences into her own work.

Rodrigo doesn’t pretend to have filed through her parent’s albums as a kid. She listened to those whom she would become: Rockers from Alanis Morisette to Hayley Williams, the whole pack of Disney girls who came before her, and any streaming superstar from the past decade. When those influences are fully actualized, she is undoubtedly at her best: She knocks against a hard beat and guitar riff on “Brutal,” perhaps the record’s greatest (and sadly, shortest) moment, and lays into her ex-boyfriend through a lite (but potent) variant of Riot! era Paramore on “Good 4 U,” now her second number one single. But between the record’s biggest moments, she admittedly dips into mid-tempo acoustic autopilot cuts that desaturate her otherwise impassioned songwriting – leaving cuts like “Enough for You” and “Happier” feeling flat when stacked against more complete soundscapes like “Jealousy, Jealousy,” a grungy resentment of self-comparison, and “Hope Ur Ok,” the album’s reflective closing track.

Despite a concern of being damned as forever “the heartbreak girl,” Rodrigo memorializes a teenage break-up through every piece of snippet-sized songwriting: While she tailors down her work into subordinate homages to her idols that manage to feel inviting and familiar even to folks outside her age bracket, Rodrigo wields the most power within her pen. Granular and unforgiving, her lyrics idealize her past relationship and villainizes the party responsible for its demise. Though not yet to be considered a remarkably masterful record, it will certainly serve its purpose to soundtrack the next generation of youth culture. (In fact, through three different viral hits, it already has.) And it lays the groundwork for an artist who, with more time to grow toward her musical goals, very well could help set the tone and trajectory for the next generation’s singer-songwriters.

Sour is available now under Geffen Records.

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