This September saw the greatly anticipated release of Japanese-British singer Rina Sawayama’s latest album Hold The Girl. Reviewed as the best British pop album of the year, she has lived up to the reputation she created with her two previous albums – RINA in 2017, and SAWAYAMA in 2020. Just one listen and it is incredibly apparent that Sawayama’s talent and hard work are establishing her as a force to be reckoned with.
Hold The Girl, comprised of 13 tracks, is an intimately autobiographical album which captures the essence of growing up. The album is full of viscerally honest reflections on Sawayama’s struggles with her self-image, the passions of her younger self and learning to let go of resentment. As well as capturing her distinctive lyricism, Hold the Girl showcases Sawayama’s ability to effortlessly hop between genres, a captivating feature of her debut album SAWAYAMA. There are quite a few nostalgia-pop songs, such as ‘Hurricane’, ‘Forgiveness’ and ‘Catch Me In The Air’. In the same breath, the album presents us with the hyper-pop title track, ‘Hold the Girl’ (a self-described ‘Bon Jovi-garage-Madonna slay’). Other tracks lean into 00s-style pop-rock and fast-paced instrumentals, such as ‘This Hell’, ‘Imagining’ and ‘Frankenstein’.
It’s difficult to contain Sawayama’s artistic brilliance into a couple of sentences, but what springs to mind is her unflinching authenticity. Throughout the album, Sawayama’s deeply personal lyrics write a story of a young girl against the world.
Sawayama talks about how difficult it is to recognise feelings we brand as ‘minor’
The angsty track ‘Your Age’ initially caught my attention due to the eerie harmonies and the intense instrumental. On a second listen, the lyrics really sunk in. It has similar themes to Demi Lovato’s recent song ‘29’ in which they discuss the unhealthy dynamics of their previous relationship with someone much older. Although Sawayama’s track is not specifically referring to a relationship, it echoes the same theme: maturing and recognising the problematic behaviours of adults around you as a young person – “Why did you do it? / What the hell were you thinking?”. It discusses processing trauma and being angry at the world around you, at those who were meant to protect you. Solemn and angry vocals coupled with an intense electro-rock instrumental solidify its place as one of the most powerful tracks of the album.
In an equally impactful track, ‘Forgiveness’, Sawayama sings about the “winding road” of humanising those who hurt you. We are all familiar with the burning feeling of betrayal and hurt at the hands of someone else. Forgiving someone isn’t as straightforward as it seems, not when you’re still hurting. ‘Forgiveness’ is a song which successfully captures the complexities of human emotions and the non-linear path we must take to truly heal. In a similar vein, the slow-paced, short opening track ‘Minor Feelings’ is astoundingly relatable. Sawayama talks about how difficult it is to recognise feelings we brand as ‘minor’, the build-up and subsequent breakdown – “The more I keep them all inside / The more they bury me alive.”
It would have been interesting to see her expand on her ‘edgier’ style
Another standout feature of Hold The Girl is Sawayama’s incredible vocal talent. Since the release of RINA, her singing ability has improved significantly. Her voice can be deep and melancholy, which compliments songs like ‘Your Age.’ It can be a soothing hum, like in the verses of ‘Phantom’ and ‘Minor Feelings’, which build into strong, vibrant choruses. Highlights of Sawayama’s vocal range from Hold the Girl include ‘To Be Alive’ and ‘Catch Me in the Air’. Although Sawayama is a pop artist at her core, her ability to suit her voice to more intense instrumentals is something which sets her apart from the crowd.
It would have been interesting to see her expand on her ‘edgier’ style in Hold The Girl – perhaps something similar to the nu-metal track ‘STFU’ from her last album SAWAYAMA, or the rock-style instrumental from ‘Who’s Gonna Save U Now?’. SAWAYAMA established an eclectic, unique pop sound – Hold the Girl loses this edge. The transition towards more mainstream music has the potential to alienate those fans who fell in love with her earlier work. The influence of pop artists such as pre-2011 Miley Cyrus and Kelly Clarkson shines through, with tracks such as ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Catch me in the Air’ sounding incredibly familiar to radio-friendly songs in 2008. Although this is not the case for all the tracks on the album, it becomes apparent that Hold the Girl is far more palatable to a wider audience.
Despite this, the album’s choice of mainstream nostalgia-pop reads as a very conscious decision. Given that Hold the Girl is such an intensely personal body of work, the themes and lyrics are its most powerful element. Each song feels personally crafted, a way of channelling emotional issues into a cohesive collection of songs.
Recommended listening: ‘Your Age’