Album Review: Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA

[Dirty Hit; 2020]

Rina Sawayama has always presented herself as someone who is confident, outspoken and proud of everything that comprises her history and personality. However, with an upbringing that saw her born in Japan, brought up in England, thrown into the esteemed echelons of Cambridge University, and navigating the discovery of her pan-sexuality, she has had plenty of reason to consider her relationship to the world and people around her. This is what fuels SAWAYAMA, her confident and surprising debut album.

On a surface level, the main take away from SAWAYAMA is that she has no intention of boxing herself in. Like her diverse personal history, the album comprises songs that all fall under the ‘pop’ banner in the broadest sense, but individually veer from nu-metal to torch-song balladry to club-ready bops. All of these provide Rina with different canvases for her to explore various traits, either drawn from within herself or witnessed in the world around her.

She introduces this overarching theme in regal fashion with the opener “Dynasty”, which rises out of the ether with no shortage of pomp as she proclaims: “I’m a dynasty / the pain in my vein is hereditary.” Then the song segues into a rap-rock-pop hybrid.

This is the first surprise on SAWAYAMA: that the opening tracks are all packed with bombastic guitars that sound like they’re pulled from a 2000s Kerrang! playlist. Those coming to this album off the back of hearing the pride anthem “Cherry” or the throwback lilt of “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome” might be caught off guard by the crunchy sounds and in-your-face vocals presented by this album’s opening songs – but you get the feeling that was Rina’s intention. While SAWAYAMA is all about identity, she wants to make it amply clear that it doesn’t mean that she has one particular taste or style that she adheres to, and if you don’t like that then you can just “STFU!”.

For those who stick with it, they’ll discover that amidst the garishly produced riffs there are alluring rhythms and hooks aplenty. In fact, the opening run of SAWAYAMA is where the most infectious and uniquely playful songs are: “XS” explores ugly capitalism with decadent synths set to hip-shaking percussion; “STFU!” is an unashamed arena-rock song that packs an unwavering slap down; the slinky “Comme Des Garçons” is pure expression of world-beating confidence.

Following these belters, SAWAYAMA takes a nosedive into a more vulnerable realm, with songs about depression and self-examination – though not all of them quite connect. The glitching “Akasaka Sad” relies heavily on the “I guess I’ll be sad” vibe, but is too sterile a production to really land. “Paradisin’” is supposed to be a sort of theme song for her teenage years, but the cheesy melodies wear thin after one go-around.

Then there are some moments where Rina gets a little more honest, and the results are astonishing. “Bad Friend” will strike a chord with anyone who hasn’t called their long-term besties for a while; Rina tells a personal story of wild summer nights in Tokyo, years ago, which then cuts to her coldly vocoded admission “been avoiding everything / ‘cause I’m a bad friend” – and it’s truly piercing. “Chosen Family” is a swelling anthem about her coming to terms with her sexuality and being accepted into a community of supportive people from across the spectrum, and it hits all the feels.

“Chosen Family” would be a perfect finale, but it is actually the penultimate track, as the Beethoven-interpolating electro-dub track “Snakeskin” provides the close. It’s as if she wanted to show one more time that she can dramatically shift styles – shedding her skin, as it were. And, this is what’s taken away from SAWAYAMA; while there are some tracks that could have been expended, that just wouldn’t be Rina’s style. She’s here to express her excessive, melodramatic, fun-loving, pain-harbouring persona in every single different way she can, without holding anything back – and SAWAYAMA should be celebrated for that.