In the last 24 hours, I have listened to Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album, SOUR, no less than seven times. Last night, I was enthralled with it, wiping tears from my eyes at some of the lyricism, and even boldly considered it album of the year. But having sat with SOUR, the more I have wondered what connected me so intensely with an artist half my age. Rodrigo bounds from genre to genre in a way that feels natural and familiar. In fact, it sounds too familiar at times. My experience with SOUR is one of pure joy at seeing a young artist find her voice from the opposite side of the music I tend to listen to, and I still believe it will be in contention for album of the year for me in a few months time. However, SOUR is the first album I have listened to that made me wonder where the line is between paying homage to other artists and just rewriting the songs by them that you love.
My first exposure to Olivia Rodrigo was her SNL performance one week ago (I somehow utterly missed the release of “drivers license”), when I heard “good 4 u” playing in the background and literally dropped what I was doing to go see who was singing. That led to a week of anxiously awaiting the release of SOUR.
Rodrigo manages to take the listener through a tour de force through genre in ways where it’s easy to see who her influences most likely are. There are bits of the grunge of Hole (“brutal”), the quirky pop of Regina Spektor (“traitor”), the pop punk of Paramore (“good 4 u”), the percussive experimentation of Death Cab For Cutie (“deja vu”) and the pop elements of Taylor Swift (“1 step forward, 3 steps back”). I don’t say that to try to take anything away from her, I mean parts of the album instantly feel familiar—”1 step forward, 3 steps back” list Taylor and Jack Antonoff with a writing credit due to its inspiration from Swift’s song “New Year’s Day”.
Where Rodrigo stands tall is in the songs that don’t sound like an homage, such as “happier”, with a doo-wop melody, or the folk acoustic guitars of “enough for you”. Although the crunching guitars of “good 4 u” are a welcome surprise, it’s hard not to instantly think of Paramore.
The absolute highlight of SOUR though, is in the incredible lyricism and vocals Rodrigo delivers throughout. Each song is a swirling tempest of heartbreak and carries an emotional weight that cuts straight to the bone.
Rodrigo as a singer is utterly inspirational. Ranging from whispers (“1 step forward, 3 step back”) to bouncing explorations of higher notes (“enough for you”), her vocals are tested song after song. She even manages to emphasize single words at the emotional apex in a song to make the lyric utterly deadly, such as in “traitor” (“Don’t you dare forget about the way / you betrayed me”).
It would be easy to write Rodrigo off as just another artist singing about heartache—there are a lot of songs about it on SOUR. But that would be a disservice to her lyricism. SOUR explores the transition from adolescence to adulthood through the viewpoint of a young woman, heartbreak and all. Lead single “drivers license” explores the utter devastation of young love—finally having the freedom to drive anywhere, but finding yourself trapped by the orbit of one person (“And I just can’t imagine how you could be so okay now that I’m gone. / Guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me / Cause you said ‘forever’ now I drive alone past your street”).
By the end, it’s easy to see the growth as she worries about close friends and the poor influence of past generations, such as “hope ur ok” (“Well, I hope you know how proud I am you were created / With the courage to unlearn all of their hatred / But, God, I hope that you’re happier today, ‘cause I love you / And I hope that you’re okay”).
Meanwhile, the insecurity of growing up seeing “perfect” idols is explored in “jealousy, jealousy” over a simple bass riff (“I kinda wanna throw my phone across the room / cause all I see are girls too good to be true”).
SOUR somehow flawlessly encompasses a pure venom of heartbreak with maturity that sees beyond the base level. Meanwhile, the lyrical content transcends age to form a bridge between generations. Her lyrics are biting, simple and heartfelt. Olivia Rodrigo might not be the most unique artist to exist, but she is such a sponge to influence that it sounds new and enthralling. But that is also its biggest setback
SOUR is a masterful debut album from a young artist, but it spends too much time feeling like a “best of” to the music that inspired her. It makes for a captivating listen, but its difficult to find Rodrigo in her own space. It’s easy to make comparisons to Taylor Swift and Paramore for good reason, but that doesn’t make the music any less than its whole. It’s just that in reflection, it feels like a trick to grab your immediate attention before a song that sounds like its own beast takes hold.
Rodrigo is a confluence of sound. Her influences on her sleeve, it’s wonderful to see her paying respect to the bands she loves, but its heartbreaking not to hear more of her in them. SOUR will rightly be adored and is justifiably going to be played on repeat constantly throughout the summer. If it’s anything to judge her by, SOUR is the perfect springboard toward finding an incredibly inspired artist leaning slightly less on her idols on her next album.
by Kyle Schultz
Kyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and killed a spider with such vigor that he broke his broom in half. He’s pretty strong. Tell your friends.