REVIEW: Sawayama shines on sophomore album ‘Hold The Girl’

Japanese-British artist explores storytelling and genre-bending on latest project

Rina Sawayamas second album, Hold the Girl, was released on Sept. 16, 2022.

Courtesy Dirty Hit Records

Rina Sawayama’s second album, “Hold the Girl,” was released on Sept. 16, 2022.

Ava Arcona, Assistant News Editor

Rina Sawayama, a former model turned UK pop sensation, has redefined the genre in recent years and stretches the boundaries of modern pop even more on her most recent work, “Hold The Girl,” as the only queer East Asian artist topping the charts in her home country.

Each of the thirteen tracks on “Hold The Girl” carries its own message or tells its own unique story, highlighting themes of self-improvement, forgiveness and love. Sawayama’s latest music maintains the distinct elements of rock, dance pop and punk seen in her previous work while mixing in experimental styles, each contributing to the creation of an incredibly captivating sound throughout.

The title track “Hold The Girl” sets the tone for a dramatic and soul-searching album early on as Sawayama grapples with the idea of leaving her younger self behind. The instrumental and vocal style abruptly switches from a ballad into an electronic sound, later moving into a mix of the two with interjections from a violin on the transitions. While the message of this song may be less straightforward, “Hold The Girl” conveys intense emotion and serves as an outlet for the ongoing internal conflict that Sawayama’s album centers around.

The most popular song on the album by far, “This Hell” redefines the term “glam rock” and epitomizes a powerful queer anthem to rival those of the late 2000s. With a carefree tone and an eye-catching music video to accompany it, the track celebrates the obstacles overcome by the LGBTQ community and encourages gay and trans youth to remain unapologetically themselves. The chorus and bridge feature a synth and a classic guitar sound reminiscent of the 1980s, during which much of the fight for equal treatment occurred. Its upbeat pop instrumentals, guitar riffs and tongue-in-cheek lyrics make “This Hell” one of Sawayama’s most remarkable songs yet.

Aptly named, “Forgiveness” outlines the difficulty of letting go of the past and accepting that “forgiveness is a winding road.” Powerful vocals set to a dramatic orchestral sound create a hair-raising effect in the listener. To me, one of Sawayama’s most admirable feats as an artist is her ability to relate to her audience while describing her own unique experiences; “Forgiveness” is an example of exactly that.

“Your Age” broadcasts an incredibly important message, perpetually relevant in today’s society: the treatment of minors by older people in both the entertainment industry and regular life. The hook features a unique sound, similar to that made by plucking the strings on a traditional Japanese violin, before layering in a UK-garage drum beat and simplistic melody. Sawayama’s rage is expressed through harsh vocal effects on the pre-chorus complimented by blunt lyrics in the chorus, told from the point of view of a now-adult survivor of abuse. This track is a perfect display of how the way a song is produced and mixed can contribute to the tone and better communicate the artist’s intentions.

“Frankenstein” opens with an up-tempo but daunting drum and bass part in a change of pace. A true alternative track, the song captivates its audience with provoking instrumentals and lyrics as Sawayama describes a toxic love founded on insecurity. The allusion to Frankenstein’s monster, who in the original novel was assembled from cadavers, serves as an unorthodox metaphor for the speaker’s feelings of disarray and inadequacy.

Nearing the end of the album, the mood shifts as Sawayama moves into a more personal method of storytelling. “Hurricanes” embodies the singer’s self-destructive tendencies, what she describes as running into the eye of a storm. Similar to “Frankenstein”, gradual buildup to the heavy rock part mimics a quintessential 90s sound. Sawayama adds a nostalgic effect to her music by taking inspiration from the decade she grew up in. 

The acoustic track “Send My Love To John” tells a heartbreaking story, on what I consider to be one of Sawayama’s most powerful and moving songs. The lyrics follow a real-life friend of the singer’s, whose estranged mother finally learns to accept her son’s queerness despite her religious beliefs. “John” is her son’s boyfriend, who she has acknowledged for the first time in an effort to improve their relationship. On the storyline page of her Spotify, Sawayama says that she “wanted to write a song for people who need to hear the words ‘[I’m] sorry’, but may never hear them from the ones they loved and trusted most.”

The closing track ties up any loose ends left by the speaker as she celebrates her freedom and newfound zest for life, despite the hardship. “To Be Alive” returns to the dramatic vocals appearing on the song “Hold The Girl”, this time supported by a dance pop backing track to end the album on a positive note, both musically and thematically. 

Rina Sawayama continues to amaze with her musical talent, taste for the eccentric and lyrics relatable to a wide audience. The evolution of her sound is evident, from the largely electronic-based “Rina”, followed by the experimental “SAWAYAMA” and finally the arrival of “Hold The Girl”, a combination of her older works and a representation of the growth she has undergone. Any one of the thirteen tracks on this project makes the listener notice a new musical or lyrical nuance, creating a new experience each time they press play.

This article was updated on 10/6/22.