Any heaviness on Sour is leavened by the singer's self-awareness and grace

By Maura Johnston
May 21, 2021 at 12:01 AM EDT
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Olivia Rodrigo
On 'Sour,' Rodrigo distills her life and her listening habits into powerful, hooky pop that hints at an even brighter future
| Credit: Grant Spanier

Olivia Rodrigo's debut album opens with swooping strings, indicating the sort of melodrama that made "Drivers License," her debut single, a TikTok staple and automatic chart-topper. Would Sour, the Disney star's entrée into pop music, lean into what worked so well over the winter? The answer comes about 14 seconds later, when the strings break and Rodrigo declares, "I want it to be, like, messy." Whew: Thrashy guitars careen into the mix, announcing the teen-angst tirade "Brutal" — and Rodrigo's desire to defy any pop expectations that have been placed upon her by fans, friends, executives, or exes.

Born in 2003, Rodrigo began her come-up through the Disney ranks in the mid-2010s, appearing in and singing the theme song for the vlogcom Bizaardvark until 2019. That year, she was also cast in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, which turns the unstoppable 2000s franchise into its own high school musical. As Nini Salazar-Roberts, who goes on to play Vanessa Hudgens' Gabriella Montez in the show's show, Rodrigo co-wrote and performed "All I Want" in the series, a deeply felt, if slightly gloppy, showcase for her lithe voice and detailed lyric writing.

Then came "Drivers License," which Rodrigo teased snippets of on Instagram last summer and released in January. While its popularity was given a boost by the gossip-page chatter around it — was it about HSMTMTS co-star Joshua Bassett? Who was "that blonde girl who always made [Rodrigo] doubt"? — its power-ballad grandeur and ingenious production, starting from the way its beat blossomed from a car's open-door chime, propelled its appeal across demographic lines. "Drivers License" sat atop the American charts during the country's shortest, coldest days, and its raging against cosmic unfairness felt righteous.  

Sour could have been "Drivers License: The Maxi-Single," a cynical grab for curious streamers full of also-ran tracks from HSMTMTS' cutting-room floor. Instead, the album, which Rodrigo worked on with producer and co-writer Dan Nigro, announces the California native as a major player in the ever-shifting spheres of teen pop and adult pop. She's a singer who zeroes in on her lyrics' emotional core and a writer who's pushing past the noise of the outside world and listening intently to her truth — even if those realities seem ugly, or, as she sings on the serpentine "Jealousy, Jealousy," make her wonder, "I think too much."  

Like any "bad times" playlist worth its track listing, Sour embraces sonic variety; pop-punk, synthpop, dreampop, and good old power ballads all come into the mix, while Rodrigo's limber soprano is its guiding light. "Good 4 U" is punchy and snide, with Rodrigo gasping out its syllable-laden, salt-heavy verses over tense drums that explode into a manic, sarcastic chorus. "Déjà Vu" is a gauzy fantasia with a time-blackened heart, all pillowy synths propping up Rodrigo's venom-filled diatribe toward an ex who's moved on. There are ballads, too — "Traitor," which precedes "Drivers License," feels like a thematic prelude to that hit, its lyrics full of the post-grief anger and bargaining that precede aimless-driving depression. But any heaviness is leavened by Rodrigo's self-awareness and grace: "Hope Ur Ok," which closes the album, is a shimmering blessing to down-on-their-luck people Rodrigo has known, complete with a chorus that sounds like a benediction. 

Rodrigo was three years old when Taylor Swift's self-titled album came out, and 10 when Lorde released Pure Heroine; those two artists' DNA is definitely part of Sour's genetic makeup, from the interpolation of Swift's reputation track "New Year's Day" on the regret-wracked "1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back" to the spectral harmonies on the stripped-down "Favorite Crime" that recall the choirs accompanying Lorde on "Royals." But Sour doesn't try to be "the next" anyone; instead, Rodrigo distills her life and her listening habits into powerful, hooky pop that hints at an even brighter future.  A-

CORRECTION: A previous version of this review incorrectly noted that Taylor Swift's "New Year's Day" was on Lover instead of reputation. It has since been updated

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