Was It Even Real?
Island Records · April 26, 2019
Despite O’Brien’s underwhelming voice, the album succeeds with its bop-worthy production and poetic lyrics.
The debut full length follow-up to Olivia O’Brien’s 2017 EP It’s Not That Deep is, if anything, quite deep. Over the ten tracks of Was It Even Real?, O’Brien examines a relationship that in many ways was doomed from the start. But instead of blaming it all on her partner, O’Brien gets honest about how she plays a role in her own heartbreak. The record packs everything from R&B to 80’s inspired pop, and with hit after hit, it’s almost impossible to believe she’s only 19 years old.
The imagery on Was It Even Real? is perfectly executed and delightfully detailed. Everything from the artwork featuring O’Brien as a Barbie doll with detachable limbs to the ghostly wail of “am I even real?” on “I Don’t Exist” paint a picture of O’Brien’s relationship– so unclear it may not have ever even existed. “Just Friends” creates this image clearly, telling the story of O’Brien holding onto the friendship with her former partner in hopes that he will reciprocate her true feelings. The track is the most intimate on the album, trading big production for a soft guitar. If not for her intensely vulnerable songwriting, this song (along with most off the album) wouldn’t work because O’Brien’s voice isn’t truly anything to write home about.
Despite O’Brien’s underwhelming voice, the album succeeds with its bop-worthy production and poetic lyrics. O’Brien never shies away from a good f-bomb on Was It Even Real?, sometimes aggressively, in “Just A Boy,” “Love Myself,” and “Care Less.” Although at moments it comes off as cringe worthy, most of the time it adds to the catchiness of the song. Toward the end of the record on “Just A Boy,” O’Brien finally has her Beyoncé à la Lemonade moment when she confidently belts, “You’re just a boy baby what did I expect? Ain’t got no fucking respect.”
Still, before she is able to reach this conclusion. O’Brien goes through all the trials and tribulations of a relationship that never really was. On “Inhibition (omw),” she cries in her Uber home from the party, on “We Lied To Each Other,” she regretfully admits she would go through it all again, and on “Care Less More,” she tries with all her might to just play it cool. The last of which is painfully unlistenable, seeming like her producer called out sick the day of recording and left O’Brien to use GarageBand to finish the song. Even though the storyline stays thoughtful and deliberate, it works best when combined with the tight pop production that creates the possibility of O’Brien becoming the next teen idol.
When O’Brien’s production and songwriting both match in quality, she creates some timeless pop masterpieces. “Call Me!!!”’s exaggerated title describes the out-of-breath, charmingly desperate, bubbly pop chorus where O’Brien dares you to dance with her, while simultaneously begging this boy to just call her!! (even though she was the one who deleted his number). It calls on the greats of teen pop like Britney Spears when with a muffled, high pitch, bratty voice, O’Brien exclaims “just call me, uh!” That said, the major falling point of Was It Even Real? is the lack of songs as addictive as “Call Me!!!” (the only comparable one being “Just A Boy”). However, throughout listening to Was It Even Real?, I was continually surprised at the diversity of sound O’Brien is capable of and was left wondering what else she has cooking up.