The stadium sound on “Hold the Girl” hides Rina Sawayama’s distinctive charm.

On Rina Sawayama’s Hold The Girl, every song is incredibly, absurdly major and builds to an exhausting intensity. hidden caption Thurstan Redding/Courtesy of the Artist

switch to caption Thurstan Redding/Courtesy Artist’s Image 2 On Rina Sawayama’s Hold The Girl, every song is incredibly, absurdly major and builds to an exhausting intensity.

Hold the Girl, the second album by Thurstan Redding/Courtesy of the artist Rina Sawayama, is called after a phrase she picked up in treatment. The British-Japanese popstar would “re-parent” herself, recovering what had been lost, to aid in her recovery from the pangs of assimilation, homophobia, and sexual trauma that had cheated her out of being her genuine self since her youth. The tactic that supports her genre-defying pop is restoration. In a recent interview , Sawayama claimed that she could avoid appearing outmoded and surprise listeners by fusing “out-of-fashion” styles that no other musicians dared touch. Given the accessibility of music from all eras and the uncertainty of what obscure curiosity or classic TikTok would release next, it is a strange thought. On her 2020 debut, SAWAYAMA, which was loaded with cheekily witty and frequently truly surprising hybrids that appropriated from Y2K pop and nu-metal and were finessed by Sawayama’s keen concentration and clear humor, the strategy worked remarkably well. Songs like “STFU!” and “Dynasty” sounded as if Sawayama had penned the abrasive, flashy smash to mediate a truce between TRL -era rivals Christina Aguilera and Fred Durst, despite having endearingly astute lyrics about microaggressions and intergenerational trauma.

That daring album, which was released in April 2020, was sufficient to maintain Sawayama’s rising popularity even while the epidemic hindered her real-life development. Before signing a record deal with Dirty Hit, the artist-friendly pop label home to The 1975, Wolf Alice, and Beabadoobee and eager to catch up, she was 29, as she has frequently stated, a late starter in musical terms. In 2018, I saw an early headline set at a 300-person London basement where Sawayama and two dancers performed amazing choreography to what was effectively a desk fan, just like at those fictitious early Lady Gaga shows. She has consistently performed in front of large crowds and is regarded as a super star by incredibly devoted internet pop fans. She has also worked with Elton John and was a must-see performer at this summer’s festivals. Hold the Girl scales in line with the trajectory’s apparent upward momentum. Here, she reaches even further across genres to snare musical theater, country, Christian contemporary music, goth, schlager, two-step, and whatever The Corrs were.

Though Sawayama’s decisions may be out of the ordinary, her Catholic sensibility isn’t. The two best albums of the year share a studious and devoted collagist spirit: Both Rosala’s Motomami and Beyonc’s Renaissance have a wealth of insightful personal and historical allusions, are exhilaratingly inventive, and most importantly, are a ton of fun. Pop’s experimental side has long been about taking pleasure in the gore of supposedly terrible taste. (Just this month, I Love You Jennifer B by the British pair Jockstrap created a classic of the genre.) Hold the Girl falls back on SAWAYAMA’s mutant glee in this fiercely inventively competitive field: It rarely performs better than the sum of its parts and each seam is expertly finished. In that regard, it is remarkably traditional for an artist with significant online appeal, yet some aspects of it also seem to be a call-and-response exercise for the kind of superficial internet engagement: Hey, you know this? One of the album’s more impactful songs is the boisterous “This Hell,” which is about resisting homophobes and willingly downing Satan’s Apple Sourz on the way to “everlasting torment.” It has a fantastic chorus that makes you want to start line dancing, but it doesn’t go past the brief “Shania meets Gaga,” and Sawayama’s scattered references to Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Lady Di, and The Devil Wears Prada come out as meaningless nods to popular culture.

Hold the Girl is filled with these constant, attention-deflecting winks, whereas SAWAYAMA had a slick integrity all of its own. “Let It Go” from Frozen is the inspiration for “forgiveness” thanks to ABBA and Sarah McLachlan. The theater youngster “Sk8er Boi” is “Hurricanes.” Many of these songs have an intentionally stiff air to them, as if they were intended to be set pieces for a magnificent live performance. The glitchy, imposing “Hold the Girl” features a poignant outro with gauzy atmospherics, hammering percussion, and a successive one-two of the album’s many, many key changes that beckons you to imagine a gymnastics duo driving the judges to tears with a touching athletic spectacular. The Eurobanger “Holy,” which blatantly draws inspiration from Depeche Mode, leaves room for an amazing drum breakdown. Despite the album’s primary influences being the last 30 years of mainstream American pop, there are some jarring Americanisms. She croons phrases on “Forgiveness” that sound like they belong to someone else, such as “I ain’t lo-o-o-ost.”

Additionally, it is grossly overproduced. (Sawayama is here joined by Clarence Clarity, a regular collaborator, and Stuart Price and Paul Epworth.) Similar to Lizzo’s song Cuz I Love You, the extravagance is probably the point. The opening track on the album is “Minor Feelings,” which takes its title from a collection of essays by the Korean-American author Cathy Park Hong. In her essays, Hong discusses how growing up as an Asian American taught her to repress what she called “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic.” “All these minor feelings / Are majorly breaking me down,” Sawayama sings, with a cruel lick of distortion strafing her operatic delivery and almost turning her lament into a threat. It’s a gently satirical overture, similar to Adele’s “Strangers By Nature,” a lavish, fluttering reverie that takes a turn for the sinister. The joke is that the 12 tracks that come after are incredibly, absurdly important. Almost every song progresses at a strenuous pace and is aromatic with a definite dry ice scent. It reminds you so much of watching Eurovision that you half expect the late U.K. commentator Terry Wogan to make a subtle Estonian joke in between songs.

YouTube Sometimes Sawayama finds the perfect balance of energy and originality to propel her into the superstar realms she is unmistakably aiming for. A soaring, hyper-oxygenated Celtic pop-rock chorus gives “Catch Me in the Air,” an imagined song of healing sung between Sawayama’s younger self and her mother, a thrilling natural high. With a heartbreaking chorus that asks, “Now that I’m your age / I just can’t comprehend / Why did you do it / What the hell were you thinking,” the twitchy “Your Age” goes beyond its Nine Inch Nails impersonation. With a speech bursting with resentment and suffering, Sawayama seethes. “Growing up in Asian families, there can be a lot of pressure to do things exactly right, which makes it hard to have a growth mindset where you value the process of trying and failing at new things, especially in creative fields,” critic Vrinda Jagota of Pitchfork said to Sawayama in a recent episode of interview . Without the “feeling of obligation” that might result from parental pressure, Sawayama concurred that “creative energies flowed.” These songs have an air of freedom that makes the forced ones stand out even more.

The issue is less that Sawayama draws from supposedly bad-tasting sources than it is that the various components frequently feel like different flavor profiles that clash. With a frantic breakbeat, dry, funky guitar, and Sawayama’s processed voice reiterating the Instagram caption sermon, “Flowers still look gorgeous when they’re dying,” the album’s closing track, “To Be Alive,” bridles fist-to-chest triumph. The album’s second explicit song about re-parenting herself following the title track, “Phantom,” is swashbuckling, saccharine X Factor balladry, and it is frequently excruciatingly sweet. Many things are awkward, but nothing is wrong. The gut-punching sincerity of Hold the Girl separates the grit from the oyster, too self-conscious for camp delight, and there is no funk or acid.

How Sawayama’s steadfast big-tent sensibility smothers what is obviously a personal record is maybe the album’s worst flaw. In contrast, consider Charli XCX’s Crash, a self-described genre exercise in playing the part of a major-label popstar in which you still acutely felt the British popstar’s anxieties and pain come through her turbo-charged pop. The relentless scale of her major feelings grinds her nuanced story to a paste. At her most granular, Sawayama sings from the bottom of her heart about her radical vision of love as a 32-year-old: her reconciliation with her mother and with herself; on “Send My Love to John,” she imagines the same for those who are estranged from their family. It’s ferociously mawkish but admirably guileless: If you often overlooked the SAWAYAMA ballad “Chosen Family,” then you’re in for some awful luck. Other than that, Sawayama’s lyrics lack the unique vocabulary she displayed on SAWAYAMA due to rote weather references (rain rhymes with pain, skies with eyes), therapy notions that clunkily fit into pop songs, and composition that begins with the title (“Frankenstein”). What’s astonishing is how frequently you’re left looking for Sawayama in a busy hall of mirrors that distorts rather than reflects her attractiveness, despite the album’s theme of seeking to reclaim a stolen self.

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