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Hold The Girl sharpens Rina Sawayama's sound while leaving room for experimentation

"Hold The Girl"

Release date: 16 September 2022
Rina Sawayama Hold The Girl Album Cover
15 September 2022, 13:29 Written by Sam Franzini

Two years on from her debut, Rina Sawayama's anticipated return with Hold The Girl continues her ballsy brand of no-holds-barred pop music.

Rina Sawayama set herself up for a challenge. Her debut record SAWAYAMA possessed a clear eye and zany ambition nearly impossible to find in most first albums. Each track, from the dynamic and soaring “Dynasty” to pop throwbacks “XS” and “Love Me 4 Me” contained a jumping-off point for a future direction. Her new album, Hold The Girl, largely relies on the same creativity and diversity. It’s not a SAWAYAMA 2.0 though – it’s an extension and revamp of her sound, complete with its own misses.

Lead single “This Hell” is one of the album’s most tongue-in-cheek songs; its acceptance and taunting of homophobes’ aftermath threats is clever, but some of its lines (“Fuck what they did to Britney / To Lady Di and Whitney”; the Paris Hilton catchphrase “That’s hot”) seem more concerned with making the song 'a moment'. A killer bridge, though, is enough to bolster it. Album closer “To Be Alive” sees the same fate — while weak metaphors pepper the beginning of the song (“Flowers still look pretty when they’re dying”), it’s bookended by a chant-a-long à la Kate Bush’s “The Big Sky” that feels utterly joyous and free.

The album’s best moments come when Sawayama is not afraid to experiment with her already multidimensional sound — even though some tracks like the bouncy, pitched-up “Imagining” would be familiar to hyperpop listeners, it feels like she is, once again, expanding her palette even farther than it has previously gone. “Your Age”, too, speaks volumes — never has she sounded so angry at its subject, spitting out “I survived the social suicide” like she can’t hold it back anymore. Deliberately singing on a ghostly register on “Phantom,” a song about missing your inner child, where she asks “How do you hold a ghost?” is haunting — it’s one of her best songs by a mile.

When diving deep into earnest writing, like on songs dedicated to her parents, “Catch Me In The Air” and “Send My Love to John,” she hits the jackpot. She was personal before, on songs like “Snakeskin” and “Tokyo Love Hotel,” but they were drenched in theatricality and metaphor. By paring everything back you’re forced to pay attention.

Clearly displayed on her both her albums, Sawayama is a lover of pop music past and present. Though “Holy” is one of the best-written songs on the album, detailing her falling-out with faith at a young age (“I was innocent when you said I was evil… / Found my peace when I lost my religion”), its flashy synths ultimately read as dated. “Hurricanes,” oddly then sounds strikingly like a song you’d hear at group worship. The lyrics “So won’t you give me a sign that you’re really there” feel biblical, (not in an unwelcome way, mind you) and the song is reminiscent of the radio-friendly rock you’d hear from Paramore or Demi Lovato.

Hold The Girl’s un-ignorable impediment is its writing. SAWAYAMA was nuanced in its satire and portrayal of family and trauma, but one song, “Chosen Family”, stood out for the wrong reasons. While heartfelt, its sixth-grade biology metaphors were corny, and as a whole it felt like a parody of a song – and this writing style pops up across Hold The Girl. The lyrics to something like “Dynasty” from her debut could be published as a poem; but some phrases on her sophomore (“Pass the wine, bitch / We’re going straight to hell”; “Hey there, little girl, don’t you want to see the world”; “She is me and I am her”) feel more suited to sassy T-shirts.

Despite a more varied array of songs than her debut, it just shows that Sawayama's not afraid to swing big. This album makes use of every single second of its runtime, jam-packed with choruses so huge and emotional, no one can quite replicate her unique sound and vision. By redefining what pop music can say or do, Sawayama is one of the most exciting musicians today.

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