Feeling awkward and out of place may seem like the exclusive purview of teenagers, but I’m not sold on that notion. I am particularly susceptible to anything that calls to the part of me that feels out of step. At times, it has made me angry, melancholy, mean and proud and while it may be tempered by years of work to remove myself from the center of my universe, all of those emotions still flood me at times and I have become oddly most comfortable in the guise of a misfit.
That little look inside my head is probably helpful to understand my 50 year old perspective on a record by someone 32 years my junior. Admittedly, it’s not quite the same, but I do still get the feeling of not belonging and not knowing if or when I will find my place. I miss my teenage years, not because they were the best years of my life, they weren’t, but because in those years there was an excuse to be awkward.
That brings me to Sour. It’s not a great record. When the producer is also a co-writer on every track, it raises the specter of a formula and Daniel Nigro may bring competence to the final product, but the album doesn’t have the kind of production that elevates it in the way that FINNEAS elevates Olivia Rodrigo’s peer, Billie Eilish. Like so many “teen” records, Sour often falls into the trap of the romantic victim that longs for the one that walked away. But even in some of those moments, Rodrigo at least recognizes that she is abdicating her own control. As she sings, “Like am I pretty? Am I fun boy? / I hate that I give you power over that kinda stuff” at least she is taking a bit of responsibility rather than the typical whining (a la the example set by Alanis Morrissette nearly three decades ago and followed on so many breakup songs since). Even when she lays the blame on her ex, she reflects on her own willful blindness before pointing out that he was a traitor even if not a cheater. Better still, she gives the word “traitor” so much sting. Even when wallowing in the pain, Rodrigo tells a pretty moving story about the plans made before the breakup on “Driver’s License” and it really taps into the melancholy of things that never were. While there are plenty of moments that don’t dig a little deeper into the lost feelings of losing someone, these places that do are the parts that I can still understand over three decades removed from my teens. “Jealousy, Jealousy” doesn’t speak across the years to me, but its rejection of the “think[ing] too much about kids that don’t know me” and that “Their win is not my loss” is wise counsel from someone on her way out of her teens to an audience largely still in the thick of those very weeds.
What really got me to give Sour a chance and opened me to its more subtle charms was the opening track. “Brutal” is a little edgier and more angular that the otherwise typical modern teen pop record. It’s a litany of complaints only allowed a teenager, but some of them are true for those of us too old to complain with impunity. While it’s not profound, enough of it speaks beyond just my memories of teenage awkwardness and into (albeit perhaps somewhat childish) middle-age awkwardness that I found common ground with Rodrigo at the outset. Without that, I may have dismissed the whole album too quickly, but “Brutal” connected me to my own youngness.
If you’re an awkward teenager, Sour has a lot to offer. If you’re an awkward adult, it isn’t hard to find value in these songs either. If you’re not awkward, go watch sports or something.
Released: May 21, 2021