Sour isn’t an album for me, and I’m fine with that. Scratch that. Try again. I’m great with that.
Olivia Rodrigo made her young fame bounding along the Disney treadmill, including a turn as one of the leads in the revival series with the colon-abusing title High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. She gathered a fan base that is deeply invested in her life, including the drama of typical high school–era relationships fraught with high emotions and heartbreaking betrayals. When Rodrigo released her debut single, “Drivers License,” its torn-straight-from-the-diary poignancy made it into a smash hit. The success is deserving. Drawing on the standard teen dream of freedom coupled to the rite of passage of being certified as a motor vehicle operator by the state, and the way the celebratory vibe can rapidly dissolve into misery if the expected occupant of the passenger’s seat has moved on to other sweethearts, Rodrigo lands on piercing commentary that’s relatable to anyone who’s nursed a broken heart: “‘Cause you said forever/ Now I drive alone past your street.”
That single is the first teardrop ahead of the weeping deluge of Rodrigo’s first full-length album, Sour. She has practically made a concept album about the reverberating sadness and anger the comes with being on the wrong end of a breakup. It’s Blood on the Tracks made for those who still consider locker decor a major concern, by someone who has professional experience drawing Mickey Mouse ears in thin air. Most modern pop records aiming for the mainstream charts boast packed songwriting credits that rival the unrolling miles of personnel at the end of a Marvel blockbuster. Sour is comparably lean; Rodrigo is only songwriter credited on all the tracks, and most cite only her main producer, Dan Nigro, as a collaborator. In a dispiriting era of hit-making by committee, there’s a purity of purpose and expression to the material here.
Beyond the intent, the songs are just plain good. Rodrigo exhibits the Gen-Z quality of sponging up different puddles of previous pop sounds and squeezing out a concoction that puts it all together into a delectable concoction free of prohibitive rules about what flavors go together. “Brutal” has the tangy verve of vintage Veruca Salt, and “Good 4 U,” another big-time hit, suggests Avril Lavigne if she nurtured an artistic kinship with Sleigh Bells. “Traitor” bursts forth with some of the most exquisite scorned-woman pop anger (“When she’s sleeping in the bed we made/ Don’t you dare forget about the way/ You betrayed me”) since Alanis Morissette had a few choice sentiments that she felt a former lover oughta know. Personally, I have a limited ability to resist the charms of a forthright pop-princess powerhouse who, on the song “Deja Vu,” drags on an ex’s wooing moves by noting she provided his introduction to “Uptown Girl” and other selections from the discography of Long Island’s favorite piano man (“Play her piano, but she doesn’t know/ That I was the one who taught you Billy Joel”).
In my bones, I believe Sour — and its embarrassment of brightly lovelorn sing-along gems — is exactly the sort of music that should take a commanding role on the pop charts. The Top 40 has been the province of restless kids ever since a transistor radio could be hidden in a classroom desk, and the swooning and searing sentiments of pop songs feel most honest when delivered by someone who is closer to the intense emotional sweeps of puberty, when every timeworn experience associated with good and bad romance seems as new as a dew-dappled flower bud. Because they’re so clearly and authentically from Rodrigo’s perspective, there’s bittersweet originality to the familiar laments of “Enough for You” (“And you always say I’m never satisfied/ But I don’t think that’s true/ ‘Cause all I ever wanted/ Was to be enough for you”) and “Happier” (“So find someone great but don’t find no one better/ I hope you’re happy, but don’t be happier”). Sour is Rodrigo’s fine and furious statement, and it’s for anyone who is hovering around the same point of life as she is. May they thrive in the rejuvenation found within its empowered notes.