Rina Sawayama Attempts to Demonstrate Her Inner Child Healing in Sophmore Album “Hold The Girl” — Album Review
The year 2020, as everyone would agree, was heinous. It drove a wretch into all our plans, hopes, and dreams. Despite this, many more eyes with nothing to do but consume vast amounts of media led to the catapult of attention through the coveted internet word of mouth. On the rise British-Japanese pop-star Rina Sawayama was continuing to break through quietly among online popheads, as she was gearing up to release her debut album “SAWAYAMA.” Single by single, she was building more and more momentum with the increase of turned heads turning into tuned in ears. Once the album dropped, time was only on her side as every listener had no choice but to sing her praises into the worldwide sphere and have her praise only become louder. The almost universal captivation for Ms. Sawayama comes from her refreshing approach to pop music — she dares to blur traditional genres and swap out conventional romance oriented lyrics for other personal areas. A metal-pop lead single called “STFU!” about racist microaggressions and an early 2000s Britney inspired pop sound with hard rock sprinkled in transitions on “XS” about excessive materialism is something not often executed, and thankfully for her, sounding this damn good.
With lots of eyes now locked onto her with great expectations, Rina Sawayama released her highly anticipated sophomore album “Hold The Girl” on September 16, 2022.
The sparing opening interlude titled “Minor Feelings” is a somber toned track to immerse you into her headspace. She softly spills out the jist of what the whole album is about — recognizing that any oppressive feelings stemmed from childhood are now beginning to unignorably rear its ugly head. The leisure tempo and heavy atmospheric production is an interesting choice to set the serious mood, but the lack of melody and energy makes it not as strong and pretty much unmemorable.
The title track “Hold The Girl” is a mid tempo gentle electronic pop song with hints of strings and a western country guitar. As such a seemingly vital track and single for the album, it unfortunately feels notably underwhelming. From the lackluster lyrics to the evidently unthoughtful production, there’s not much going for it. The lyrics do pertain to the main idea of wanting to heal her inner child, but she digs into this better on the later tracks in the album and for now it feels a little bland and cliché. The production doesn’t prop it higher either, as it seems like there was no clear vision — even with Sawayama being no stranger to mixing various musical elements that are on opposite ends. The dramatic string transitions and country inspired guitar added to the main rhythmic beat don’t necessarily sound bad together, it just feels like it’s there to be there, for the sake of wanting to add flare. The song also lacks so much energy it feels it’s right on the edge of. It’s only until the end of the bridge and forward that it fully reaches the high point in energy that deserved to be more present in the song. Especially the brief ultra spacious reverb and vocal layering that portrays this anthemic feel.
Although the lead single “This Hell” is a significant tonal difference from the rest of the album with the upbeat and celebratory mood, it’s still a hell of a fun track. Sawayama takes the well known religious homophobic retoric and gathers eveyone to party in hell with her. While you can tell it was written to be a universal uplifting gay anthem for wide appeal, it fills its purpose well. I really enjoy the use of the prevalent western theme with strong electric guitar and pop melodies. It’s a fun and easy listen that’ll get you to loosen up and jam out. Although just as a note for the track placement in the album, the celebratory tone would definitely fit better towards the end in regards to the natural lyrical journey and tone the album takes.
“Catch Me In The Air” is an unexpected favorite of mine, as it’s not complex but the execution of the simplicity is just satisfying. She encapsulates the airy atmosphere of the scene of arriving at the very top of a mountain, engulfed in a revitalizing chilly breeze, ready to fearlessly jump right off the edge in preparation to soar. The early 2000s Kelly Clarkson-esque pop rock ballad sound that is felt on other songs on this project is introduced here. The tastefully cheesy and nostalgic inspiration fits here perfectly. The simple bass, guitar, and piano creates the inspirational soundscape. I love how the use of the nostalgic genre acts as an ode to the younger self. I also love the chorus melody that has stuck to my brain from first listen; It feels like flying higher and higher limitlessly. Although as an afterthought while continuing through the album, I’m not a huge fan of how this melody seems to lose it’s charm by the similarities of it reused throughout other tracks.
“Forgiveness” is a slightly more ballady pop-rock inspired track. Here, she already reuses the similar melody from the aforementioned song in the chorus, which, alas, cheapens the song a little bit for me in the sense that it feels lazy, especially right after the other. The exaggerated, slightly country-inspired singing style is an interesting choice and way to add vulnerability to the voice, but I don’t dislike it. The rhyme scheme does feel somewhat notably dull, just because it’s so repetitive with the predictable AABB end rhymes. The song itself is not bad by any means, but not a stand out. The heavier drum set, leading guitar strumming, and soaring vocals build this grand sense of accumulation and honestly, it feels a little weird at this point in the album. From my point of view, this is the last song right before we finally get into the lyrical meat of the album theme. Here in the tracklist, it feels particularly misplaced as she sings about forgiveness being difficult to navigate…but we don’t really know what events she’s trying to get over from. It feels unfortunate to say that the first five songs are easily the weakest points of the album with its unbranded lyrics (that if anything, would make more sense after knowing more) and perhaps even more sonically generic. It’s a shame how almost the first half is kind of disengaging.
From the church bells in the outro of “Forgiveness” to the staccato synth droplets, mysterious swelling pad, and baby vox effects opening “Holy (Til You Let Me Go),” this is the unofficial indication that changes the game of the album from sort of stale to an awoken listener. The brooding bass carries the echoey vocals for the first verse into the beautifully unexpected launch of a dark dance pop chorus with descending synth keys, a pounding kick drum, and arpeggiation scaling the background. The transition from the chorus into the second verse breaks up the dynamics with this militaristic drum pattern and bangs of a bass drum before the break of the minimalistic instrumental with isolated vocals, into a thumping deep drum and zappy synth pattern. The pre chorus adds a brash pad and atmospheric swells. The song (besides the ending interlude) ends with the extended chorus at full power to dance out the pain. I love the overall mystifying, almost cryptic yet uptempo dance pop sound, especially for the concept of talking about the damage of religion and how terrifying getting too caught up in it can be. It’s definitely a major highlight of the entire project.
The filtered banjo riff that acts as the musical motif throughout “Your Age” oddly works as a cool melodic backdrop. The small but grainy rumble is a really cool effect to go into the simple punches of drums. The pre chorus builds up grit and space. I love the chorus and the various repetitions of the “not a ____.” I also love how all of the anger of this song comes almost entirely from her voice and the bluntness of the lyrics. This song lyrically captures the anger that comes from wiseness — and how unfathomable their actions were now that you’re in a similar position that they were in (in this case for Sawayama, it’s about adults vs. the youth). The blaring collection of synths assist the vocals, which are the focal point here. The tumultuous breakdown as the ending is nothing but pure emotional anger when there is nothing left to say.
The glorious, pure hyperpop track “Imagining” is perhaps the absolute highlight of the whole album. It is the song I would label as a must listen that everybody deserves the pleasure of tuning into. I absolutely revere when the production of a song parallels the lyrical content so well. If there were to be a chaotic hyperpop track present, this is the ideal fit. It follows Sawayama so perfectly into the different levels of mental spiraling into a breakdown. A club-ready beat, filtered guitar, eccentric synths, and pitched vocals take the lead for all the whiplash turns. The energy here is crazy and feels like the emotional climax of all the frustrations thus far. I absolutely love the switch up in the last third of the song where it takes us to a stylish piano and clear undistorted vocals, acting as a reality check and brief realization she is in the breakdown before the final acceptance of being totally out of it, in the light headed floating stage. For the outro, she repeatedly cries out “Could we be imagining?” as the anarchy goes off into the clouds — or perhaps hell.
The desperation angle of anger finally comes through in the racing “Frankenstein.” While anger is definitely the undercurrent of the few previous songs, here, Sawayama has finally reached the stage of desperation in her grief. She has reviewed all the trauma and how it affected her, yet hasn’t let go of any of it at this point. In this song, the weight of it all is bearing heavily on her whole body, as the racing rock beat with heavy beating drums and a bold bass line signifies. Frustration reaches full force as she begs to be loved despite being covered in flaws and faults that she feels cannot be helped or is deserving of grace, as she compares herself to the infamous monster of ‘Frankenstein.’ The whole song is snappy with the angst in the melody and infectious chorus. The amalgamation of the forlorn lyrics such as “I don’t wanna be a monster anymore” and the aggravation makes for the emotional equivalent of screaming into the void of yourself and being left as a shell of a human body.
“Hurricanes” is the aftermath cool down from all the intense emotions and drawn out breakdowns. It’s a very reminiscent sound, pulling again from the early 2000s mid tempo pop rock era, but especially here it specifically feels like an ending song for a 2000s/2010s teen movie; this song would play during the narrated ‘flash to the future’ compilation during the end credits. The piano offers a gentle tenderness that signals the feeling of brightness that comes from reflection. I feel like here, while she is no stranger to paying homage to earlier eras of pop music, at this point it feels like a little too on the nose and more like lazy nostalgia copy and paste rather than a reimagining or innovation. It removes some of the authenticity Sawayama is aiming to display, especially with the pretty broad lyrics regarding stumbling through the process while still striving for improvement.
I adore the concept behind “Send My Love To John” and find it a refreshing, unexpected new perspective to add a new layer to the overall theme. It’s a fictional story (although inspired by a personal friend) about a parent who realized they treated their gay son unfairly due to religious-rooted homophobia. It certainly relates to the main theme of the album and expands it in a way by grounding the relatability and universal truth in a way that still uses detailed vulnerability rather than generic lyricism. I also love how it’s written directly from the perspective of the parent leaving a message to the son. Turning this story into a simple country ballad is actually a fitting choice even though at first it seems sonically surprising. With all that being said, I do think it just barely misses the mark for me with the style of lyric writing/storytelling. The execution of the concept falls a little flat for me as the lines all feel blunt in a way that lacks more potential depth. While I applaud the use of background details vital in storytelling as the opening lines, (”Cross the border, in the summer of ’73 / Left my mother, to go after, the American dream”) along with the mention of “I hid behind the bible’s rules” as explanation for the ‘traditional’ values, it starts and ends at acknowledging they were wrong and that’s the whole story. While I understand this story is restricted to only one song and this can be down to a matter of subjectivity, it feels dry in the sense I wish the story would take more time to unravel in details and figuring out what happened as we continue to listen, but it’s all very upfront and tight. I find myself left with questions, thirsting for a wider scope of the narrative such as “When did the parent realize they were wrong?”, “What made them change their ways?”, or “What specific interactions between the two made significant cracks in the relationship?” Regardless, I still find it to be a very sweet song and I love the idea of someone relating to these topics in this album and potentially having this song serve as a sense of closure they’ve wished to hear or reliving that moment.
“Phantom” is another very unexpected favorite and personally is the song that has lyrically touched me the most, although it’s another 2000s inspired touching soft pop rock ballad. Complete with piano, acoustic guitar strumming, touches of strings, a dash of supporting warm synth notes, emotive electric guitar, and sincere reverbed vocals, the chorus lyrics really just hit me hard. Especially the “I don’t wanna do this without you / I don’t wanna do this if you’re just a ghost in the night / I tried everything to fill up the void that you left me with.” Also the line “I wanna tell you I’m sorry” just breaks my heart. I completely recognize and empathize with every range of feeling here — the feeling of wanting to protect your younger self and the innocence, rekindling with that child who never got to truly thrive, and feeling the injustice and sorrow towards what they didn’t deserve, it’s honestly all a little too real. To me, this is the most sincere pop rock ballad of the album as it paints such a clear picture, but I also know this could be said of any song where someone personally connects to the lyrics so deeply.
A predictable conclusion to the album, “To Be Alive” is an airy, open declaration of freedom from the past. The piano and two-step percussion brings the emotions and heart-beating excitement, but it’s nothing unique or memorable. It does the job of serving the rebirth message but that’s all it’s there to do.
Overall, the idea and concept was there and understood, but just did not execute in a way to fulfill the potential. The debut album “SAWAYAMA” raised her up so incredibly because of her innovation of pop music and experimentation of genres and lyrical content. On this sophomore album, the experimentation here is very watered down; it lacks any true genre bending and comes across either an aimless attempt or simply a rip of an old era. Not to mention, the dynamics and mixing noticeably don’t pop as much as her previous work; when it does start to feel like the dramatics are amped up, it’s probably in the hands of long-time collaborator with Sawayama, named Clarence Clarity. It’s fairly noticeable that the other producers do not understand the full nuances of Sawayama’s sound as well as her long-time colleague and it’s surely an unfortunate detriment to the project.
While Sawayama’s debut album was about ranges of topics that pertained to her childhood, identity, climate change, racism, capitalism, etc., it was more scattered yet more personal and showed herself as a multidimensional artist. Here, it’s a more general journey of healing your inner child, which in of itself can be very personal, but it lacks distinct details to personalize it. The general lack of dynamics, production wise and lyrically flatten the project a bit. As someone who has been listening to Sawayama for years now, this feels like her most unfocused project to date. I believe she needed to focus her wide vision more, to remember the core of why she is so beloved as an artist. As a new listener going into “Hold The Girl,” I can see how it might be hard to connect with her. Despite all of the perhaps harsh leaning criticism, I’m still intrigued by her fresher perspective when it comes to the pop music scene and especially her choice of lyrical topics; her ideas have such large potential that is hard to not root for.
Album rating: 3.5/5 stars