Rina Sawayama Can't Hold Back on 'Hold the Girl'
Published Sep 13, 2022Rina Sawayama's muscular 2020 debut album — a pop juggernaut bearing her surname — came into the world with a fully realized sound, an impressive feat for an artist only in the beginnings of her career. Channeling both glitzy Y2K pop in the vein of Britney Spears and Mariah Carey and the rock and nu metal thrash of bands like Korn and Evanescence, Sawayama did it all and executed it in a fresh, exciting way.
Two years later, her sophomore LP Hold the Girl goes a little deeper and darker, carving out more richly personal narratives while introducing a new smorgasbord of musical influences. Longtime producer Clarence Clarity returns to lend his magic alongside Paul Epworth, Stuart Price, Marcus Andersson and Barney Lister, who help fold moody country rock, buoyant dance pop and sweeping power ballads into Sawayama's sound. And though Hold the Girl has moments of disjointedness that feel less intentional or purposeful as Sawayama, it has a lot of heart to offer.
Trauma and healing are huge through-lines on the album, and audiences are immediately thrown into these themes on the record's opening 1-2 punch of "Minor Feelings" and "Hold the Girl." The former, a brief but mystical proclamation of yearning to belong and finding one's place in the world as a queer Japanese-British woman, mirrors similar feelings Sawayama explored on her debut. The title track finds her hugging her younger self in an act of self-love — "Then I remember who l'm really made of / And she's been hide-and-seeking, waiting all along," she belts. Glitchy beats evolve into an epic key change, accompanied by massive, Phil Collins-esque drums. Sawayama's vocals throughout the entire album are unwavering and strong, and her ability to switch back and forth between sky high riffs and soft crooning prove she's a force to be reckoned with.
Hold the Girl sprinkles in plenty of unabashed fun, like on the fiery country-pop "This Hell," a celebration of what society deems "deviant" and a new addition to the LGBTQ+ Pride anthem canon. There's also the snide "Your Age," which explores the anger and hurt over the damage caused by an older partner atop plucking banjo and distorted club beats. "Now that I'm your age / I just can't imagine / Why did you do it? / What the hell were you thinking?" Anger plays a crucial role in the healing process, and Sawayama isn't afraid to let that part of herself show — take "Frankenstein," an eerie plea to be released from inner monsters set to a pulsating bassline and aggressive percussion.
Whether it's anger, denial, longing for acceptance from others or granting that acceptance to herself, Sawayama covers all of the messy and beautiful facets of growing and moving on. She extends her narratives beyond the first person too — "Catch Me in the Air" is a bright and heartfelt ode to Sawayama's single mother, while "Holy (Till You Let Me Go)" grapples with a character's loss of faith over an anxiety-inducing bass thump. One of the biggest highlights on the record, the country ballad "Send My Love to John," is sung from the perspective of a parent apologizing to their queer child for not accepting them, as well as unpacking their own intergenerational trauma. The simplicity of the acoustic guitar and Sawayama's smooth voice paired with the impactful lyrics, "And I'm sorry for the things I've done / A misguided love to my only son" are breathtaking.
The most sonically adventurous track comes in the trippy and psychedelic-leaning "Forgiveness," which doesn't shy away from the fact that healing isn't a linear process: "Forgiveness is a winding road," Sawayama sings. Its daring mix of sounds works, but not every experiment on Hold the Girl sticks the landing. "Hurricanes" is a little too saccharine in comparison to the rest of the project, sounding like the end credits of a late '90s coming-of-age movie. There are some sequencing issues too — such as placing "Frankenstein" before "Hurricanes" — that feel clumsy and lack the flow that was felt more clearly earlier in the tracklist.
Still, Hold the Girl finishes strong. "Phantom" is yet another vocal highlight from Sawayama, an emotional ballad about declaring love for someone that sounds like a classic encore song in the making. "To Be Alive" is the album's bombastic finale, and it depicts Sawayama's journey as being far from over, but ultimately one that she's grateful to be around for. Despite some bumps, Hold the Girl is full of passion and reflection, uninterested in holding back and unafraid to revel in the power of vulnerability and self-love. (Dirty Hit)