album review

Olivia Rodrigo Studied All the Right Moves

Soon, she’ll get better. Photo: Olivia Rodrigo/YouTube

Catching feelings is a dice roll. Suddenly, someone means the world to you, and short-term happiness is contingent upon how well they handle that. Maybe you luck out and find someone kind, thoughtful, and quietly sophisticated, and you feel like you’ll never meet the day where you stop being impressed and surprised. Maybe you get led on and let down. Putting yourself out there is a gamble; sometimes love is a losing game. Everyone’s trying to hit big and cash out, but to win is to risk and learn failure. In the thick of it, these feel like matters of planetary consequence. And sometimes they are! More often, they’re not.

A pop songwriter’s job is to make the personal and the mundane seem universal and significant, to relay, via sharing one’s own thoughts and experiences, some finer understanding of the human condition. The good ones are able to resonate in spite of (or, at times, because of) the specificities and trivialities of their own circumstances. You don’t have to be married in a rough patch to tap into the dignified frustration of Beyoncé’s “Don’t Hurt Yourself” or to have had several publicized breakups to know the grace and gratitude of Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next.” Like parables, good love songs get listeners to identify with a singer and to reflect on what we might do, or what we have done, when confronted with a situation like theirs. Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” is one such song. You don’t need to be a Disney Channel star who has just seen her Disney Channel co-star boyfriend buzz off with yet another Disney Channel co-star to relate to the feelings of abandonment and upheaval that the song conveys, or to be fresh off the learner’s-permit circuit — as Rodrigo is in the first line of the song — to feel weird cruising past haunts that remind you of failed relationships, as the singer does throughout the remainder of that verse. Rodrigo’s verses tell personal stories, then her chorus highlights a place we’ve all been, no matter how many different roads we took to get there. That shift in perspective, that dizzying zoom out, is one of the hallmarks of great songwriting.

A dyed-in-the-wool Swiftie, Rodrigo, 18, takes a page from Taylor’s playbook there, balancing recollections of a relationship that was good until things went south with anthemic lyrics listeners can apply to their own lives, just as a song like “We Are Never Getting Back Together” weaponizes specificity as a method of winding up the haymaker in the refrain. Realism equals authenticity equals emotional heft. With luck, a singer’s care in walking us through uncomfortable past experiences creates a rapport with the audience. But sharing is taxing; recently, Swift’s writing has shifted to a more novelistic approach that explores the plights of fictitious characters, historical figures, and family members as much as it reflects on her own.

Sour, Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album, is a breakup record that teaches lessons about insecurity, anxiety, and trust using the sting of a breakup and its turbulent aftermath as inspirations, obscuring specifics just enough and floating just enough harsh self-criticism to shield its songs from accusations of vengefulness. The lover sending mixed signals in “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back” is obviously bad news; the song is as much about the yearning that leads us to override our better judgment as it is about the wishy-washy boy. “Traitor” accepts responsibility for keeping quiet about a boy’s wandering eye as much as it skewers him for leaving. “Deja Vu” is vindictive, but in “Enough for You,” she regrets caring. Sour is keenly self-aware. As great as many of these breakup tunes are — “Deja Vu” and “Traitor” are first-ballot hall of fame material — and as committed as Olivia Rodrigo seems to be to isolating and identifying the reasons we stay in bad romantic situations as much as she calls out guys who woo you with a well-rehearsed shtick and bounce as soon as things get complicated, Sour’s laser focus feels limiting. The fifth and sixth incarnations of the quiet song about the ex’s two-week layover between girlfriends aren’t as vital as the first few. The further we get from the sound, subject, and structure of “Drivers License,” the more versatility the arrangements and writing are able to express. As the album opens up, Olivia Rodrigo’s varied talents begin to flower.

Her debut imagines Rodrigo as a sheep herder guiding her flock through the ins and outs of a first breakup by hashing out the feelings, rational or not, that flood the mind when you’ve been dumped, but her writing is often just as (if not more) incisive when she changes the subject. Album opener “Brutal” points out the lie in the idea that our youngest years are our easiest and most fun years one teenage frustration at a time. “Jealousy, Jealousy” covers the psychological effects of influencer culture and the pitfalls of being held to unattainable standards of beauty. “Hope Ur OK” is a message of solidarity for teens whose parents resent them for being being born different. Popping out of her own perspective, Rodrigo shows how everyone is having a hard time in their own skin lately and where she can go as a writer somewhere down the line.

While, in its lyricism, Sour is still figuring out formulas, its sound is an achievement, a smart juxtaposition of a decade of developments in and adjacent to popular music. Working with co-writer and producer Dan Nigro — former front man of Long Island’s As Tall As Lions, whose 2006 self-titled debut folded disparate genres into moody art rock to the delight of the Alternative Press and AbsolutePunk set — Olivia tries on the punk-pop of YUNGBLUD, the pop-rock singularity of Sucker-era Charli XCX, the ASMR elegance of Lorde and Billie Eilish, and the folk-pop balladry of early Taylor Swift, mirroring the post-genre melange of solo Hayley Williams and Caroline Polachek as often as the young star is willing to ditch the drippy folk. When Sour’s sense for what zoomers are going through syncs with a knowledge of what they’re listening to, it feels visionary. But while there isn’t a bad song in the batch, by the time you get to “Favorite Crime” and “Happier,” it feels like we hit the bottom of the singer’s well of potent relationship observations. She’s young, and she’s got some living to do; she’s writing what she knows and processing her trauma with a maturity beyond her years. And what makes the album grate a little also rings true to the feeling of being on the mend after a split. You replay scenes in your head. You dissect how you behaved, what red flags you should’ve minded. Sour is a great start. Eventually, Olivia Rodrigo will be back, and she’ll be better.

Olivia Rodrigo Studied All the Right Moves