The gods of timing have not been kind to pansexual Japanese-British singer Rina Sawayama. She spent most of her 20s struggling to find a record label, saving up to release her 2017 ep “Rina” herself. In 2020, she signed to the British indie label Dirty Hit and dropped her debut album, “Sawayama,” in March. Unfortunately, its release coincided with the start of the pandemic. Rather than being able to tour, she was stuck inside like the rest of us. No wonder that the first single of her second album, “Hold the Girl,” is called “This Hell.”
Sawayama’s music may have benefited from the fact that she wasn’t able to release her debut album until she was 29. “Sawayama” combined personal reminiscences about growing up in the UK with immigrant parents with witty takes on subjects like cultural appropriation cheapening Japanese culture (“Tokyo Love Hotel”) and male entitlement (“Comme des Garcons.”) “Hold the Girl” was written during a period of isolation, while Sawayama was attending therapy. As the title hints, the album looks back again upon her youthful experiences, but the results have far less impact.
Her skill as a singer and songwriter does not falter on “Hold the Girl.” However, the lyrics and production don’t match them. “This Hell” is an earworm whose appeal quickly fades. The music video presents hell as an exclusive queer nightclub, but once Sawayama gets there, she does nothing more exciting or transgressive than dance. Offering community as an antidote for the rise of bigotry and the traumas of the last few years, it’s short on the details. The song resonated at first as a teaser for “Hold the Girl,” but with further listens, it could stand to give more thought to what “this hell” would actually sound like. Its toothlessness suggests one major change between Sawayama’s two albums: “Hold the Girl” looks inward, dropping the political perspective of “Sawayama.”
“Sawayama” included several pastiches of music from the 2000s, but it looked backwards with a greater purpose than mere nostalgia. Sawayama sang her childhood and adolescence over music drawing on the time she lived her lyrics out. On “Dynasty” and “STFU,” she resurrected the unfashionable genre of nü metal without its macho baggage. As a concept, a song that sounds like Britney Spears fronting Korn might be a terrible idea, but “STFU,” whose lyrics are inspired by the sexism and racism she’s faced in the music industry, hits hard enough to redeem Woodstock ‘99.
“Sawayama” was a thoroughly pop album, and several of its songs could have been top 40 hits in 2020. But it sounds like it was made from a musical recipe book with a few ingredients missing, and Sawayama filled them in with her own ideas. “Hold the Girl” is much glossier. Sawayama introduces several new influences on this album: pop country, hair metal. The production mutes the electric guitar’s bite, mixing everything down to an overly compressed muddle that’s loud without having any real sonic force. The album leans towards a slower pace, with many ballads.
The title track is the album’s best song, making the inspired choice to rotate back and forth between glitchy percussion and a warm string arrangement. The placement of acoustic instruments against cold, extremely modern beats, especially with some of Sawayama’s most passionate singing, sounds great. Still, it’s the only song here that achieves an imaginative combination of genres. Lyrically, the album returns to songs like “Dynasty” and “Akasaka Sad,” where Sawayama looked back at her family. She returns to her mother’s point of view on “Catch Me in the Air” while singing from the voice of an immigrant who “crossed the border in ’73…threw away my name” on “Send My Love to John.” All too often, the lyrics run closer to the greeting card sentiments of “inner child, come back to me/I wanna tell you that I’m sorry, sorry.”
Sawayama’s skill as a singer stands out throughout, as does the songwriting’s melodic flair, even though “Hold the Girl” takes fewer chances. It is far from a wash: The title track is one of 2022’s best singles and “Send My Love to John” is lovely, but she has to muster all her energy to triumph over sanitized production on “Hurricanes.”
When Sawayama sang “I’m gonna take the throne this time” in 2020, it was easy to be sympathetic, but now that she’s gotten part of the way there, she’s lost some of her standout qualities. The demos for “Hold the Girl” likely have more bite. Sawayama has critical acclaim and an ardent following on her side, but the safe, sterile choices she makes on “Hold the Girl” suggest pressure to become a target for the paparazzi she criticizes on “This Hell.”
Rina Sawayama | “Hold the Girl” | Dirty Hit | Sept. 16th