All of those songs are, in one way or another, about the perils of being wide-eyed. But Rodrigo is also beginning to harden her shell. On “All-American Bitch,” which opens the album, she details the impossible standard for young women in the public eye: “I’m grateful all the time/I’m sexy and I’m kind/I’m pretty when I cry.”
And she sings with breezy confidence about physical intimacy in a way more akin to hyperstylized dance floor-focused pop stars who use sexuality as performance. On “Logical,” she replays how an ex belittled her: “Said I was too young, I was too soft/Can’t take a joke, can’t get you off.” The moody “Making the Bed,” uses the titular phrase as a recurring motif of restoration, or perhaps of papering over misspent nights with fresh sheets.
Rodrigo writes her own lyrics, and “Guts” is produced by Daniel Nigro, who was also her creative partner on “Sour.” That small circle frees her from the committee-tested gleam of most mainstream pop. Her sudden success means she has not (yet?) needed to subject herself to the homogenization of the Max Martins of the world — she has succeeded by rendering her intimacies on a grand stage. That’s part of why “Guts” leans heavily into rock — pop-punk (“All-American Bitch,” “Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl”), a little new wave (“Love Is Embarrassing”), theatrical folk (“Lacy”) — which gives her songs thickness and a little bit of rowdiness, too. But some of this album’s most punk moments, as it were, come when Rodrigo unleashes holy hell while Nigro simply plays the piano.
On her debut album, Rodrigo made semi-subtle nods to earlier female pop stars — there can still sometimes be the sense that she is constructing her songs of pre-existing parts, whether from Swift or Alanis Morissette or Avril Lavigne or Veruca Salt. The winks come in the song titles — “Love Is Embarrassing” nods to Sky Ferreira, a parallel-universe meta-pop star of a decade ago who also trafficked in seen-it-all realness. And then there’s the album closer, “Teenage Dream,” which invokes Katy Perry, the archetypically glossy 21st century pop princess.
Perry’s “Teenage Dream” is a naïve cupcake, an exhortation to live, laugh, love. Rodrigo’s is a morbid piano plaint about the falsity beneath all that. The dream is a mirage, and Rodrigo is pulling back the curtain on it: “I fear that they already got all the best parts of me/And I’m sorry that I couldn’t always be your teenage dream.”
Here, and in the most potent moments on “Guts,” Rodrigo’s music pulses with the verve of someone who’s been buttoned tight beginning to come loose. Unraveling is messy business, but it is also freedom.