Brimming with irrepressible passion, Rina Sawayama is stage-ready on Hold the Girl.
The singer’s sophomore studio album, released Sept. 16, is a high-gear pop rock record ready to detonate with danceable verve. While Sawayama’s debut album SAWAYAMA exuded enthralling grit that crimped its tracks with head-turning allure, its successor proclaims her evolution with the radiance of its deep intent and knife-sharp focus. Latticed with the artist’s rebellious streak and newfound sagacity, there’s a motley quality to Hold the Girl that blends postmodern contradictions, nostalgic 2000s style and pastiche-buoyed grandiosity into an arresting mixture of sound.
The album’s titular track walks hand in hand with “Phantom” to peer deeply into the recesses of Sawayama’s younger self, a theme that penetrates the ardent interior of Hold the Girl. While the latter voices the artist’s struggle to reconcile with her self-sacrificing past, “Hold the Girl” is redemptive — an older, wiser Sawayama swears allegiance to the girl she used to be, singing “Reach inside and hold you close/ I won’t leave you on your own.” The emphasis on Sawayama’s inner child is a product of her efforts to “re-parent” herself through therapy, a fact made evident by the magnitude of catharsis felt in each reverberation of her vocals.
Indeed, Sawayama’s music has never been more colossal. The singer’s dive into her voice’s more orotund sonorities figures brilliantly on both euphoric anthems and anguished ballads alike, offering a unique texture that retains its exceptionalism even as the record draws inspiration from sundry sources. While borrowing brazen belts from Lady Gaga, a country intuition from early Taylor Swift and Kelly Clarkson’s dynamic pop proclivities, Sawayama scales up the stakes, injecting explosive momentum into her floaty timbre.
However, the album’s arena-prepped extravagance baits double-edged production all too well. While the sonic warpings of “Your Age” and the thrashing agitation of “Imagining” varnish Sawayama’s zeal with stylistic purpose, her vocal talent often capsizes into obscurity as it battles the album’s excessive instrumentation and aural modifications. In “Holy (Til You Let Me Go),” for instance, Sawayama’s effusive proclamations are unable to shine through the track’s shadowed luster of shimmering synth and electric fuzz.
Though the album attempts to thread its thematic strengths together with the elusive cohesion afforded by its exorbitance, its bluster often over-weathers its intimate edge. Drowning in its maximalist production style and genre-hopping totality, Hold the Girl is a torrential sea of mighty sound that all too often lets Sawayama’s vulnerability drain through its whirlpool’s dizzying tail. Such emotional nakedness is hardly well-mediated through the record’s trite metaphors and prosaic lyrics, which at times evince a YA novel-esque, Pinterest quote-like sentimentality. Perhaps the album’s centrality on Sawayama’s younger self argues in favor of her devolution to the juvenile, but it’s executed with more cliché than finesse — rather than embodying stylistic innovation, it runs the risk of babying her audience with its schmaltzy tone.
Despite this, Sawayama’s audacious experimentation pioneers in its own right, flaunting the artist’s ability to orbit both rousing musical innovation and a dedication to the truths of her experience. Amidst the bustling fusion of Hold the Girl, the country-pop vigor and cheeky glamor of “This Hell” is a pumped-up standout, while “Minor Feelings,” named after the essay collection by Cathy Park Hong, opens the album with stripped-down, blistering harmonies laid over a tinkling chord progression. In respective dialogues on queer rights and the Asian experience, Sawayama prolongs the exploration of identity that she started in 2020 with SAWAYAMA, overlaying her europop sound with powerful candidness.
Yet, albums often depend on their final note to medicate their ills, and Hold the Girl barely sticks the landing with the tearfully maudlin “To Be Alive.” Soaring yet oversimplified in concept, it’s a sappy, saccharine final act that glazes the album’s intermittent irreverence of the conventional with a veil of banality. Departing on a honeyed tone, Sawayama’s artistic intent is clearer than ever — execution, meanwhile, remains a “Phantom” too hazy to hold.