Rina Sawayama’s career is all about defying odds. Sawayama, a Japanese immigrant, tried to break through the British music scene with her debut single “Sleeping in Waking” in 2013. She went under the stage name “Rina” for quite a few years, calling her last name “an inconvenience,” up to her debut self–titled EP, RINA, in 2017.
Sawayama’s self–produced EP was her breakthrough in the industry, catching the attention of Dirty Hit records to sign her as an artist. From there, the only way was up, and her debut album in 2020, SAWAYAMA, proved to be a cultural breakthrough. Praised for its strong songwriting and blend of sounds, the album resonated with listeners and critics. She collaborated with Lady Gaga for the Dawn of Chromatica album and Charli XCX on Crash; the latter gave Sawayama her first ever UK chart entry on the singles chart. By then, the singer was already 30 years old, but it seemed she was only getting started. Sawayama increased her fanbase, many of whom are queer and find solace in her maximalist pop and creative vision.
Fast forward two years and Sawayama finally released Hold The Girl, her follow–up to her monumental debut. Her prodigious songwriting skills are on display, highlighting themes of healing and repenting. However, the sonic output was trying too hard to catch up to the lyrics, and the album’s hodge–podge mix of pop–rock and synth–pop does more harm than good.
The album opens with “Minor Feelings,” a short, two–minute intro where Sawayama declares that “all these minor feelings / Are majorly breaking me down.” A muted introduction compared to SAWAYAMA’s bombastic intro, “Dynasty,” “Minor Feelings” displays the singer’s crisp and clear vocal abilities. With sparse instrumentation and a layered vocal effect, listeners feel the full force of her emotions with every word she sings.
“Hold The Girl,” the album’s third single, tricks the listener into thinking that they’re getting another ballad, but once the chorus hits, it switches into the familiar dance–pop territory. The indecisive nature of the track might be indicative of the singer’s feelings during her therapy sessions. Somehow, it doesn’t translate well with lyrics like “Sometimes I get down with guilt / For the promises I've broken to my younger self.” Possibly some of Sawayama’s most earnest lyrics to date are overshadowed by the song’s double–natured production.
The lead single “This Hell” suffers a similar issue. A number meant for arenas, Sawayama explores the country–pop route, complete with slick guitar riffs and chiming bells. She is clearly poking fun at common homophobic signage, and she embraces being “damned for eternity” for being herself. While this song’s message rings loud and clear, the song’s production never reaches a peak and lacks an anthemic chorus to match. By the end of the song, it’s just another country–pop number that pales in comparison to other LGBTQ songs.
Singles like these show the main problem with this album. At times, we hear Sawayama’s clear intent on making pop bangers complete with their introspective lyrics, but sometimes, she falls short of her goals. Instead of letting her natural charisma flow through as it did with her debut, the songs are watered down by the production.
It’s not just the singles that highlight this issue. Album track “Holy (Til You Let Me Go)” is vaguely similar to Lady Gaga’s “Sine From Above,” both sonically and thematically. Sawayama included lyrics like “Tried to pray the pain away / Just like you taught me (But something had changed) / Came to shelter from the blame / But I left taking all the shame,” filled with a sort of righteous anger at faith and religion. Yet, the stadium rock–esque sound and echoed reverb may distract the listener from the poignant lyrics.
The most indicative thing about this era, however, is the album’s cover art. In it, we see Sawayama dressed in a curiously rotund dress that covers her entire body. Stan Twitter even joked that it looks like another curious piece of equipment. If you peruse through any of the single artworks, you’ll find a different, more mystic aura behind the cover arts. At times, it’s hard to reconcile the serious nature of the subject matter with the flamboyance of the sound, and her ambition to include both have created mixed results.
While the singles offer a buffet with too many items, Sawayama soars when she gets the portion size just right. “Imagining” is a spiritual successor to her debut’s “XS” where the songstress sings “Right now, my sanity is gone, it's vanishing” behind a distorted synth pattern. It is as if her sanity was actually vanishing as we listen to the song. She is able to create masterful pop while retaining her unique persona, and the different elements of “Imagining” complement each other to drive home a specific point.
The best song on the album is, objectively, “Send My Love to John.” A tender guitar track, Sawayama solemnly sings from the perspective of an immigrant mother that had trouble accepting her son’s sexual identity. Sawayama wretchedly sings to the son about “John,” her son’s lover, that “He's there for you in all the ways I never was” behind a tearful guitar line. This heart–jerking song never flies too high, allowing the lyrics to hit the emotional weight they carry.
But perhaps her fourth single, “Phantom,” best describes the point Sawayama was trying to convey through her album. Hold The Girl is described as a “reparenting” album, an album that reflects on the things that she needed but was denied as a child. “How do you hold a ghost? / Inner child, come back to me” begs Sawayama through a passionate ballad rock track. One could feel the desperation of the singer, “looking for love [and] wanting to trust” other people but is battered by the cruel world around her.
All in all, Hold The Girl encapsulates Sawayama’s bold ambition to write a contemplative album without sacrificing its pop and anthemic sound. Yet, this overachieving attitude caused some of the songs to falter from their intended emotional weight. Less is more, as the old saying goes, but Hold The Girl had its foot on the pedal the entire time.