Album Review: Rina Sawayama – Hold the Girl

[Dirty Hit; 2022]

Upon first encountering the brilliance of Rina Sawayama, it is difficult to categorise her, considering the amount of genres she has gracefully embraced. However, it cannot be denied that the Japanese-British singer-songwriter is a bona fide popstar who delves both into the accessible and the off-kilter whenever she pleases. Yet the artist’s second album Hold The Girl finds Rina gunning for a larger audience. Relinquishing the more experimental, grittier aspects of what was explored on her debut album – the sensational SAWAYAMA – Rina instead opts for the route of sounds across the nostalgic ’00s spectrum with a modern varnish. Whether it’s the skittering drums of UK garage, sweeping pop rock ballads in the vein of Goo Goo Dolls, defiant and angsty punk, or even the light pinch of country – for the nineties kids, this is essentially a time capsule of youth. This proves an appropriate and deliberate choice as the album finds Rina on a journey of processing and healing her inner child with the emotional earnestness and empathy her music frequently imbues. This may be a more palatable entry for those unfamiliar with Rina’s music, but this doesn’t make it any less of a genuine project.

Nostalgia has always been a fixture in Rina’s music since her debut EP when she explored loneliness in the context of social media across production reminiscent of ’90s R&B. Occasionally, this nostalgic sound palette can come across as cheesy; however, for those who grew up in the time, this album becomes an unabashed gateway to a time of compact discs and boxed televisions – or what she sings is a time of “stickers and scented gel pens.”

“How am I supposed to feel / When you’re telling me that nothing in my life is real?” she asks at the beginning of the album’s intro “Minor Feelings”. It works well as the album’s thesis statement as Rina is grown-up, reflecting on a time that has long since passed. The overhanging shadow of childhood trauma looms over the album as she laments how “All these minor feelings are majorly getting to [her] now.”

The healing begins on the following track – and the album’s namesake – “Hold the Girl”. Influenced by both UK garage (which seems to be thankfully making a comeback) and epic Brit-pop, the track finds Rina singing to her childhood self (“Sometimes I get down with guilt / For the promises I’ve broken to my younger self / Moving on, maybe I never will / ’Cause I left you spinning on the carousel.”) It’s a poignant and moving track that manages to be a bop at the same time including a rather goosebump-inducing key change for the final chorus. “Imagining”, an album highlight, also takes a UK garage sound but twists it into a pixelated, electronically jagged juggernaut. On the track, Rina addresses those sleepless nights when your mind is in a constant frenzy. “I don’t know if Mercury’s in retrograde / Am I okay? / Nah,” she sings with a heavily processed voice that manages to sound sassy and robotic at the same time. The chorus is an explosion – the embodiment of how tracks are colloquially labelled a “banger” – and proves that for all the introspection and softness pervading this album, she has not lost her aggressiveness.

Hold The Girl can delve into a fun and exuberant campiness that provides a little respite from some of the heavier themes in this project. Lead single “This Hell” fits this mold perfectly. A devilish dive into the eternal flames, Rina sings this as a love letter to the LGBTQIA+ community. Referencing Shania Twain’s “Let’s go girls” before galloping off into a country-esque thumper, its hard not to feel empowered at its playful jabs at the paparazzi (“Fuck what they did to Britney / To Lady Di and Whitney”) and bigoted religious groups who picket concerts (“Saw a poster on the corner opposite the motel / Turns out I’m going to hell”). Rina has never been afraid to stand up for the marginalised – especially being part of the community herself – and this proves a fun, anthemic middle finger to prejudice that has automatically cemented itself in thousands of Pride playlists.

Quite a few tracks on the album opt for a more pop-alternative style that frequently hits and rarely misses. The smoothly-strummed anthem “Catch Me In The Air” is a lovely and euphoric ode to her mother with a melodically catchy chorus. “Forgiveness”, with its light orchestrations of piano and guitar, is an emotional piece of Britpop about the difficulty of moving forward. With a sweeping vocal performance by Rina, whose pipes should never be underestimated, this is a lighters-in-the-sky moment on the album. This is heightened even further when the track unfurls to choir-like background vocals and electric guitar.

More conventional are tracks like “Hurricanes” and “Phantom”, which are stirring but sometimes feel a bit anonymous in the context of Rina’s artistry sonically. However, the lyrics — alongside her powerful and emotive vocal delivery overshadow what ever the production may lack. “Phantom” in particular, as a piece of dramatic rock, finds Rina trying to recapture her inner child and apologise. “I don’t want to do this without you / I don’t want to do this if you’re just a ghost in the night,” she sings plaintively. Rarely do pop songs broach the topic of trying to reconcile your younger self with your present self, but Rina does it effectively.

The journey of healing occasionally veers into a deep-seated anger, such as on the excellent downtempo electronic stomper “Holy (Till You Let Me Go)” which is a track about religious alienation. “I was innocent when you said I was evil / I took your stones and I built a cathedral,” she sings ironically on the chorus. Despite its rather anthemic nature, the song invokes a narrative that many are familiar with: of being the victim of prejudice because someone has twisted religion to justify their hatred. While the aggressive “Your Age” finds Rina as an adult looking back on things she experienced as a kid and processing her rage over it. “Cause now that I’m your age / I just can’t imagine / What the hell were you thinking?” she snarls over the intense production.

The project’s final two tracks address closure in two different ways – one finds Rina flexing her storytelling skills to create a narrative of queer acceptance; and the other is the singer feeling renewed after processing her demons. Stripped back and folksy “Send My Love To John” is a lyrically poignant track where Rina writes from the perspective of a mother who initially didn’t accept her child’s sexuality upon their coming out (“And I’m sorry for the things I’ve done / I misguided love, to my only son / Trying to protect you but I guess I was wrong.”) Unlike “This Hell”, the queer narrative explored in this song is one of learning from ignorance and repairing relationships between family members that were damaged from such ignorance. While some lyrics are a bit on the nose (“I hid behind the bible’s rules”), it still proves a beautiful track about resolution. The album’s finale “To Be Alive” is a triumphant ending reminiscent of the emotional dance music frequenting the early 2000s airwaves. On it, Rina seems to have finally found peace – or if not peace, at least the strength to transcend being a “Prisoner to [her] bedroom walls” and instead, embrace life wholeheartedly.

Hold the Girl is an excellent sophomore album from an artist who selflessly wears her heart on her sleeve to help others. The journey of this project in healing your past self, forgiving others, and arriving at a place where you’re not only willing to face the future, but will strive to make a better one for yourself, is an inspirational offering. From other artists, maybe such a message proves a bit too cheesy and schlocky for the cynical listener. But with bops and tearjerkers aplenty, Rina’s sincerity in how she confronts her past demons cannot help but warm even the iciest heart.