SOUR is impressive enough as a mostly self-directed record from a teenager, but declarations that it’s any kind of “Next Big Thing” are patently silly.
The cultural phenomenon that is Olivia Rodrigo, beyond whatever fanbase she amassed while a Disney channel star, can be best interpreted as follows: Most members of the elite media class have never really gotten over their high-school years and are therefore willing to bend over backwards to accommodate whatever piece of media will allow them to relive their supposed glory days. So while it’s mildly amusing to imagine “serious” grown men critic-types writing ledes such as “Olivia Rodrigo is the new bard of heartbreak…,” for dying print-media entities, it’s also a bit sad on a cultural level that there’s not a more critical eye directed at such rank fetishization. It’s rancid discourse such as this that radically alters the expectations one should set against SOUR before first diving in: If you want to buy into the hype and become a full-blown poptimist, then by all means praise the living hell out of this release. It’s okay, really; Robert Christgau, in a move that definitely wasn’t done to justify his relevancy, just gave this a rare A, a grade saved for other members of elite pop royalty such as Billie Eilish and Rihanna. By contemporary pop standards, you could easily do a lot worse. You could also do a lot better and listen to some more forward-thinking artists that inhabit this territory in nebulous degrees (the PC Music wing). But the glowing enthusiasm that’s been placed on what’s essentially a decent debut is a bit perplexing; maybe the critics have had their expectations crushed one too many times over the years and will just take anything at this point. Or, it could be that they’re more susceptible to a PR campaign than they might think. Or, they do know it and just don’t care.
Anyway, of the 11 tracks here, about three of them really stick: opener “brutal” is equally flippant and abrasive, a perfect encapsulation of angsty distress in these modern times; “good 4 u” has trouble selling some of its wilder transitions, but it’s a decent enough Paramore cosplay, on the whole, warranting a few playthroughs on full volume; and “jealousy jealousy,” a shameless Arctic Monkey’s wannabe that leans into the venom hard enough to sell the act. There are two major duds — the never-ending, boring “traitor” and the miscalculated “hope ur ok” — and the rest is serviceably written and competently executed — often emotionally charged and volatile, but flat in terms of any noticeable thematic depth. Which is both something of the point and the big draw here, that 18-year-olds do feel like the end of the world is imminent because they don’t know how to parallel park. Contextualized in this way, SOUR improves drastically and becomes a right foot forward career-wise. In any other light, well, one begins to look a tad silly in an attempt to sell this as the next Big Thing in music. And why should such lofty expectations be placed on Rodrigo so early? Her debut is sparsely arranged — she was largely left to her own devices with producer Dan Nigro, with little major label interference, which itself is an impressive feat for a first release — and has a short shelf-life compared to what else she’s bound to have on the horizon. But perhaps that will deal with life outside of secondary school, and critics will have moved onto an even younger social darling by then.
Published as part of Album Roundup — May 2021 | Part 3.