Rina Sawayama
Photo: Thurstan Redding

Rina Sawayama’s ‘Hold the Girl’ Is a Bewildering Anticlimax

Rina Sawayama’s second LP, Hold the Girl, suffers from a lack of risk and is self-consciously conservative in terms of execution. It’s a bewildering anticlimax.

Hold the Girl
Rina Sawayama
Dirty Hit
16 September 2022

Rina Sawayama‘s 2020 eponymous debut integrated aspects of metal, art pop, and R&B, demonstrating the artist’s eclecticism. Unfortunately, her new album, Hold the Girl, is overly singular stylistically and largely reliant on formulaic pop craft. While Sawayama’s skills as a singer are indisputable, her versatility and emotional range rarely take center stage. The ire, playfulness, and antiauthoritarian stances of Sawayama are palpably absent, obfuscated by well-trodden personas. This shift wouldn’t be so disappointing if it weren’t for the set’s consistently derivative tone.

Opener “Minor Feelings” is a promising blend of glammy vocals and synthy splashes, an arena-friendly production that establishes the project’s commitment to mainstream appeal. Sawayama wistfully addresses how she has repressed various feelings until they are now “breaking her down”. With the title song, Sawayama takes the full pop plunge à la a cross between Kate Bush and Celine Dion. Orchestral strings and bassy notes are interwoven. As the track unfolds, Sawayama embraces melodies that alternate between canonic country-pop inflections – everyone from Dolly Parton to Faith Hill – and FM pop forays reminiscent of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”, albeit sans the infectious swagger.

“This Hell” uses a catchy riff that might’ve been plucked from Sawayama’s debut. Rather than radiating metallic volatility or floor-stomping rebelliousness, however, the refrain is diluted, occurring more as the intro to a corporate jingle. The song addresses the polarities inherent to our current social order, particularly how certain people condemn certain other people to hell simply for being themselves. When Sawayama sings, “This hell is better with you / We’re burning up together, baby, that makes two / ’cause the devil’s wearing Prada and loves a little drama,” she employs a melody and lyrical orientation that recall any number of Taylor Swift tracks pre-1989.

While the new-wavey rhythms and synthy flourishes on “Catch Me in the Air” are intriguing, the Katy Perry references circa 2010 are startlingly overt. “Frankenstein”, on the other hand, is probably the most alluring track on the album. Lyrically, Sawayama adopts the Mary Shelley story as a confessional metaphor. “I don’t want to be a monster anymore,” she sings, navigating a moment of credible vulnerability. The song succeeds as a moment of genuine revelation, also highlighting by contrast how so much of Hold the Girl is devoid of a core identity. This problem could not have been anticipated, given Sawayama’s charismatic presence throughout her debut.

With “Holy”, Sawayama also hints at the transparency evinced in earlier work, though the song loses traction as it unfolds. Embracing a sultry, dark-pop, and glitchy timbre, the track brings to mind Halsey‘s witchy If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power. (It’s interesting to imagine what Hold the Girl might sound like if Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross had produced it.) As the song approaches conclusion, one gathers: that while Sawayama rarely fails as a vocalist, at least technically, she’s bogged down by the set’s repetitiveness and hand-me-down sonic palette. As a result, even her soaring passages fail to sustain an emotional connection with the listener.

“Your Age”, too, launches with striking potential, alluding to recent St. Vincent or Japanese Breakfast, Sawayama’s voice treated with distortion effects that invoke a sense of urgency. Still, as a whole, the piece fails to individuate or come to visceral fruition sufficiently.

“Hurricanes” displays undeniable pop savvy, though the Katy Perry connection is again glaringly overt. The pop-scape is so familiar as to remind one of stock or library music, yet without any trace of slacker humor or loungey self-deprecation. “Send My Love to John” unfurls as a tender apology from a protective and ambitious immigrant mother to her son. There’s a generic quality to the lyrics, though, as if they were scribbled in response to a workshop prompt, the appropriate motifs (“American dream”, “threw away my name”, “go to college”, “find a good girl that you can take to a dance”) collaged and placed into a tune that again points to Taylor Swift’s influence, this time 2020’s Folklore. “To Be Alive”, built around a slappy bass and refreshing pseudo-funk rhythm is an apt closer about overcoming personal challenges. Fortunately, the album ends on a relatively strong note.

Unfortunately, Hold the Girl is distinctly bereft of its predecessor’s emotional oomph and musical prowess. The songs pull from well-known sources, obvious debts neither celebrated nor reconfigured. As mentioned, Sawayama’s vocal performances are mechanically flawless, a testament to her talent, though they fail to evoke the sublime responses that Sawayama can evoke. Overall, the sequence suffers from a lack of risk and is self-consciously conservative in terms of its execution—a bewildering anticlimax.

RATING 6 / 10