By Sheroog Kubur, October 17 2022—
Rina Sawayama has been on a steady mission to become one of the best pop musicians of our age. Her music has an undeniable edge to it but manages to be polished and crisp, marrying the demands of a meaningful album and marketable singles perfectly.
The album opens with “Minor Feelings,” which carefully tells the listeners exactly what to expect for the record. The title is a reference to the Cathy Park Hong book of the same name discussing East Asian identity in the Western world. It’s the premise of the album — a woman reflecting on her world with contempt and frustration. She asks “How am I supposed to feel when you tell me nothing in my life is real?” through gritted teeth, contrasting the atmospheric aura of the song.
If SAWAYAMA was her finding her musical identity, Hold The Girl was her proving that boxes and labels don’t work. It’s noticeably more ethereal to her previous releases, calling on heavenly church choir-esque harmonies and atmospheric production choices to make the tracks feel like they float above the ground. This makes sense given the overwhelming religious imagery in the lyrics — themes range from forgiveness and discovering the truth, all to instrumentals that are reminiscent of hyper-pop, glam rock and country all rolled up into one. On paper it’s overwhelming, but plugging in your headphones and taking a minute to listen means you understand its appeal — it makes sense as a whole project but also as individual tracks.
However, it wouldn’t be a Sawayama album without some healthy genre exploration. Hold The Girl has a country flair to it with songs like “This Hell” and “Your Age,” but she maintains her musical edge. “This Hell” is a pop-culture infused cheeky jab at a world that feels intolerant, inviting listeners to go “I understood that reference” with each line. “Your Age” is filled with distorted and repetitive vocals, sounding more like a swan song despite only being at the halfway point.
Sawayama’s true talent lies within the translation of her lyrics into the music. Each song isn’t simply a story being told, it’s a full blown auditory performance. A track like “Frankenstein” is fast paced and grating, with vocals that sound hopeless and an instrumental conveying a sense of urgency — a pre-chorus picking up in energy until it explodes into her begging to be fixed, until the grand finale with berating drums and cries. “Holy (Til You Let Me Go)” opens with church bells in the distance, feeling like you’re hearing them echoing among a grey and misty morning, until it evolves into a rave anthem with synths bouncing around in a stone cathedral. It’s evocative and heart wrenching.
Hold The Girl is the perfect introduction to Sawayama’s discography. It is growth from SAWAYAMA but keeps her persona as an artist. It’s overwhelming and complex, taking listeners on a journey through her psyche. The album is about healing, and each of the songs reflect how she’s been able to go through it all. As much as it is a hodge-podge of genres, production and pop-culture, it’s still an experience — and that’s what Sawayama does best.
Sheroog’s Recommendation: “Frankenstein” to feel the buzz of the 8 a.m. coffee without the coffee and “Hold The Girl” to come back down from it.