Sweet and “SOUR”
Reading Time: 4 minutes
This past year has been chaotic, to say the least. We hung out with friends and celebrated milestones through a computer screen, and experienced the good old feelings of heartbreak and pain in isolation. To create an album that perfectly encapsulates all of the above is quite a task, but Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album “SOUR” captures this mix of emotions near-flawlessly.
Rodrigo’s rise to stardom began when she was a child actor, when she starred on the Disney Channel series “Bizaardvark” (2016-2019). She currently stars in the Disney+ original series “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” (2019-). For the latter, Rodrigo wrote the song “All I Want” for the soundtrack and co-wrote “Just for a Moment” with her co-star Joshua Bassett, showcasing a sample of her songwriting talent and her aptitude for powerful ballads. However, Rodrigo released her first true hit song,“drivers license,” in January 2021, which quickly rose to number one in multiple countries. Soon after, she announced the release of “SOUR,” following the release of a second single, “deja vu,” in late March.
It is clear within “SOUR” that Rodrigo is inspired by some great songwriters, the most notable ones being Taylor Swift and Lorde. Rodrigo has openly confessed to being a massive “Swiftie,” and her lyricism does often resemble Swift’s, with the elaborate storytelling and flipped point-of-view in songs like “enough for you.” She even sampled Swift’s song “New Year’s Day” in “1 step forward, 3 steps back,” and fans have pointed out that “deja vu” is reminiscent of Swift’s “Cruel Summer.” Rodrigo also looks up to Gwen Stefani, originally the lead singer of No Doubt, for her songs about embracing femininity and tearing down gender stereotypes.
“SOUR” is an 11-track amalgamation of raw feelings that people of all ages can relate to, centering around the stages of grief experienced after ending a relationship, from jealousy and denial to more nuanced emotions such as insecurity, betrayal, and even self-image. There is a general storyline that most of the songs follow from the beginning to the end of the album. “brutal” kicks off the album with an unexpected prelude of beautiful string instruments before abruptly switching to heavy electric guitars after Rodrigo’s static voice says, “I want it to be, like, messy.” And “brutal” is messy in the best way, encapsulating chaotic teen angst and a grimy mix of the post-breakup emotions that Rodrigo explores for the rest of the album. The following track, “traitor,” dials the angst back down, using simple backing chords and nostalgic melodies to contrast the betrayal and remnants of love that accompany an ex-partner’s emotional cheating. In this part of her story, listeners hear how Rodrigo had and still carried these expectations of her ex that they never fulfilled, both scornful and wistful about her innocence. “happier” and “favorite crime,” both fan favorites, also continue along this vein. Featuring gorgeous overlaid vocals, “favorite crime” offers a look into the stage of acceptance, where Rodrigo tries to move on from the past despite lingering regrets. “jealousy, jealousy” adds another layer to “SOUR,” containing a powerful bass line that projects the song forward and provides a backdrop for Rodrigo’s insecurities and a wider commentary about the effect social media has on self-image. “good 4 u,” like “brutal,” leans more toward punk rock than pure pop and looks at someone who only really establishes themselves with Rodrigo’s interference, which shows her realization that she was essentially used.
The instrumentation of the album is also notable: many of the songs contain the same few instruments playing different strumming patterns or chords. On most tracks, we mostly hear only the piano and guitar, with the occasional violin or electric bass added to the mix. It would be interesting to see how Rodrigo can play around with other instruments that could add more dynamic and variety to “SOUR.” The production of this album, done almost exclusively by collaborator Daniel Nigro, is solid, and Rodrigo's vocals are the focal point of the album. Through her voice, Rodrigo tells a beautifully written story that transforms into a movie in the listener’s mind.
For the most part, “SOUR” is a well-composed album with few “filler” tracks that distract from the cohesivity of the album. There are some songs that fall a bit flat, as they don’t stand out among some of the stronger tracks. “1 step forward, 3 steps back,” for example, feels overshadowed by tracks that pack a stronger punch. Its simple piano background and lyrics aren’t as memorable as other songs on the album, despite the unique reflection on a toxic relationship and the mixed signals that accompanies it. “enough for you” follows that same pattern: strong message but weaker presence in the overall album. And because “drivers license” was released months before the album came out, it fell victim to the countless replays by radio stations and other outlets and no longer prompts the same rush of emotion as its first listen incited.
The large themes of the album include heartbreak and healing but also embrace raw emotions and concepts of femininity within music. In “jealousy, jealousy,” Rodrigo talks about social norms that she strives to fit, writing “All I see is what I should be / Happier, prettier, jealousy, jealousy.” Within “SOUR,” she takes the dated idea of how a female songwriter’s songs should sound and flips it on its head. A female artist shouldn’t have to worry about criticism for writing songs about love or heartbreak, and her choice to explore these subjects doesn’t invalidate or discredit her music. By making the album so relatable, Rodrigo opens up these conversations and connects with the emotions of her listeners while avoiding the
“immature” stereotype. A sour breakup is not one-sided, and coming out of that relationship elicits more than just sadness & heartbreak.
All in all, “SOUR” is a fantastic, cohesive debut album for Olivia Rodrigo. It opens up a world of possibilities for her as a pop star and makes her career one to watch. She deserves a huge amount of credit for pulling off such an amazing debut album at just 18 years old. She meticulously crafted a project that speaks to so many of us, and her exploration of the bittersweet feelings post-breakup that go beyond just sadness or anger delve into the complexity of heartbreak. That is what makes “SOUR” so special.