Review: Rina Sawayama’s Hold the Girl is unfocused in the best way

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Juliana George, deputy lifestyle editor

Rina Sawayama earned a political science degree from the University of Cambridge long before her debut album SAWAYAMA launched her into pop stardom, and in her sophomore record Hold the Girl, she doesn’t let anyone forget it.

Hold the Girl, released Sept. 16, tackles themes as wide-ranging as anti-Asian hate, homophobia and mental illness; yet somehow, Sawayama still manages to imbue the record with her signature glitzy ebullience.

The most substantial motif explored in SAWAYAMA is the generational trauma and depression the Japanese British singer-songwriter inherited from her immigrant parents, particularly in the songs “Dynasty” and “Akasaka Sad.” She continues this thread in Hold the Girl, this time post-therapy. The “girl” in question is Sawayama’s inner child, who experienced growing pains from her multiple identities as a first-generation bisexual girl living with her recently divorced mother. However, Sawayama frequently departs from the title theme in order to indulge her penchant for commenting on social issues, with her signature bizarre combination of tongue in cheek sarcasm and heartfelt sincerity.

Sawayama is no stranger to using political messaging in her music. In SAWAYAMA, the singer expressed discomfort about East Asian fetishization in lead single “STFU!” and criticized modern capitalism and hyperconsumerism in “XS,” the standout track. 

Hold the Girl is notably more scatterbrained. For instance, Sawayama satirizes the puritanical anti-LGBT sentiments pervasive in evangelical Christianity and condemns the paparazzi responsible for the death of Princess Diana in the same breath in lead single “This Hell.” 

The subject matter of the album isn’t the only aspect that changes with each song: Hold the Girl also struggles to find its footing in a cohesive genre. Sawayama jumped from genre to genre in her first album — evoking the early 2000s angst of Evanescence one minute in “Dynasty” and the playful whine of Britney Spears the next in “Snakeskin” — but she takes her indecision to the next level in Hold the Girl. The album features Taylor Swift-esque point-of-view ballads, plucky pop-folk hybrid tracks and earnest, soaring numbers clearly written to be tearfully belted.

Eclectic sound aside, Hold the Girl wears its nostalgia well. References to “stickers and scented gel pens” and “forts between the sofa and the windowsill” are set to the same cheesy pop beats Sawayama must have come of age listening to. Her sense that she was robbed of the happy childhood she wanted comes through in opening track “Minor Feelings,” named for Korean American author Cathy Park Hong’s book of the same name; both song and book dissect the fractured identities of the Asian diaspora. Title track “Hold the Girl” features the lines “Teach me the words I used to know/Yeah, I forgot them long ago,” which could represent her first language of Japanese, an ability she lost slight command of after moving to the United Kingdom at age 5. For Sawayama, a child of the diaspora, nostalgia includes the childhood she didn’t get, the one she would have led had her parents never left Japan. 

The religious imagery that pervades the album nods to her experiences at the all-girl Christian high school she attended, and the record amplifies the universal suppressed yearning of adolescence with an added spiritual tension. In “Holy (Til You Let Me Go),” Sawayama touches on the internalized shame likely understood by much of her dedicated queer fanbase, singing “I was innocent when you said I was evil/I took your stones and I built a cathedral.” She examines the loss of her faith further in “Hurricanes,” in which she implores, “So won’t you give me a sign if you’re really there?/’Cause I’ve been lost inside waiting on a prayer.” Sawayama incorporates abundant religious references even in the songs recalling unrelated past traumas, such as the mentions of “the eyes of God” and “savior” in “Your Age,” a song raging about the inappropriate nature of an age-gap romance that presumably occurred during her youth.

Sawayama talks a lot about feeling captive to her suffering. In “Catch Me in the Air,” a bittersweet comparison of her mother-daughter relationship with that of a bird pushing a chick out of the nest, she accuses her mother of making “a prison of [their] home,” she calls her former lover “a jail personified” in “Your Age” and she laments her former self feeling like a “prisoner to [her] bedroom walls” in final track “To Be Alive.” By the end of “To Be Alive,” though, Sawayama conveys a distinct sense of freedom with her rich, resonant voice and the joyous drumbeats in the backing track. Songs like “Forgiveness” and “Phantom” reflect on how far she’s come from the hurt little girl she now feels qualified to “reparent.” Depending on the skepticism of the listener, “Hold the Girl” can manage to be either uplifting and triumphant or a tad cloying and preachy, but the album is undoubtedly a big step in the journey of Sawayama herself.

Despite the album’s lack of unity — and its heavy themes — Hold the Girl is undeniably fun. Glamorous, flippant “This Hell,” which paints eternal damnation as a hedonistic party populated by Sawayama’s stylish queer friends, and “Frankenstein,” a song with a rapid, mechanical beat comparing her mental brokenness to that of the titular monster, are both the exact kind of song that audiences will want to shout along to this November on Sawayama’s North American tour

Apparently, making feel-good music with perplexingly serious subject matter was Sawayama’s goal all along. 

“At the end of the day, my goal is to have my music be like a Trojan horse, where you can hide deep and sad meanings within a song, but the melody and production have to be good,” Sawayama told Who What Wear in August.