Review Summary: “I’m not the girl I tried to be yesterday”
Let me take you back to a time before time, before the world began its post-2012 crawl towards the apocalypse, when the chief means of music consumption were CDs and the radio and mainstream
was an invocation of Simon Cowell rather than Taylor Swift. The UK ‘00s are easy to romanticise for anyone privileged enough to remember their lackadaisical, sheltered side. Truth is, there was a great deal of disaffection and apathy brewing throughout that time, but compared with the depths we’ve since plumbed, it’s easy to filter those through a hollow sense of optimism. The charts of time time indulge that perspective: pop was happier, stupider and more catered to people who left their houses to dance once in a while, all of which naturally left its critical currency next to zero. This did have its upsides - we faced none of today’s imperative to credit each and every pop song with enlightening social commentary - but it led to a joyless arena for anyone intent on arguing the merits of commercial music beyond moment-making cheap thrills. Pop was lightweight; life was less conscientious and, if you believe the spin, a whole lot easier.
For Rina Sawayama, that past is
the present, and it’s all too tempting as such to write her latest record off as a rehash of vapid times. If her 2020 debut Sawayama
was a wilfully jagged pastiche that flirted with ‘00s tropes from an anachronistic distance, Hold the Girl
is a full-scale immersion that practically stands as a cuckoo child among the decade’s actual icons. This comes festooned with throwbacks to such passé chart-lubricants as pumping garage (“Hold the Girl”), pulsing Eurotrance (“Holy (Til You Let Me Go)”), good ol’ manufactured girl group pandemonium (“Catch Me In The Air”, “Hurricanes”), and every single Lady Gaga-ism you were on the verge of finally forgetting (“This Hell”). Her revival is almost uncanny, not just in its proximity to her source acts, but in the way it evokes their underlying inspirations: “Forgiveness” and “Phantom'' don't just recall, say, Keane - they recall the way Keane themselves were recalling the Goo Goo Dolls. Forget ‘00s pastiche - this record is a full-on reconstruction.
It’s confusing at first to hear Sawayama meld herself into a mesh of superimpositions this way. Back on Sawayama
, the boldness of her autobiographical lyricism and the thread of her cross-cultural journey were the unifying force behind many a brash change of tone, each stylistic volte-face the basis for an arresting insight on mental health, queer community, family conflict, cultural fetishisation, or myriad other poignancies; here, her resplendent voice is almost devotional in its eagerness to blend into a unified landscape. The candour of her writing hasn’t slipped an inch, however: Hold the Girl
’s eponymous sentiment resonates through the whole record, cradling an estranged Rina-of-the-past in an apparent process of therapy. She is me and I am her
: reconciliation with a troubled past self and validation for the present one. Sawayama’s delivery packs such swagger and confidence that the angle of validation is initially more visible, no moreso than on “This Hell”’s queer-positive blasphemy catwalk or “Catch Me In The Air”’s sheer headrush, but it’s the lurking trauma of her real
‘00s experiences that fuels the record’s emotional journey and substantiates its retroism.
Crucial here is the centrepiece duo of “Holy (Til You Let Me Go)” and “Your Age”, both of which suggest abusive treatment from an older figure in a religious institution (Sawayama attended a Christian high school). “Your Age”’s disgust at mismatched power dynamics aligns with Demi Lovato’s chilling “29” from earlier this year for an uncompromising repudiation (’Cause now that I’m your age, I just can’t imagine / Why did you do it?
), while “Holy” forms the crux of a core theme: the intersection between external impositions and internalised guilt (I was innocent when you said I was evil / I took your stones and I built a cathedral
). Tracks such as “Frankenstein'' see present-day Sawayama showcase these (one assumes consequent) psychological scars as a yin-yang of entrenched self-hatred and a rapacious craving for acceptance (Love me forever, fix me right [...] I don’t wanna be a monster anymore
), while the manic “Imagining” suggests a full-on breakdown rife with self-blame and toxic it’s-all-in-your-head–isms (Right now my sanity is gone, it's vanishing / I know I do this to myself, it's damaging / Could we be imagining
). All things considered, Sawayama’s choice to wallpaper her testimonials with the kind of music that no doubt soundtracked her formative mishaps carries an edge darker and more subtle than nostalgic indulgence originally suggested by her choice of singles.
As a personal statement, then, Hold the Girl
is at once empowering, cogent and deceptively uncomfortable; as a pop record, however cohesively realised, there’s a recurrent sense that its tracks hinge far more on the weight of their subject matter than the other way round. Sawayama’s pop palimpsest is so buried in its own citations that even its best cuts veer towards the interchangeable. Late standout “Hurricanes” is proof enough of this, in part a self-portrait as a locus of melodrama, in part one of the year’s more exhilarating singles, but, in spite of everything, above all a prompt to double-take and blurt out aloud that sh*t damn
, ain’t it something that a prominent pop artist has finally found the courage to dig up Kelly Clarkson’s long-lost school boldface exclamation? In this way, Hold the Girl
both finds and buries itself in its retro fixations. It’s a respectable record with easily enough depth and conviction to hint at something thoroughly vital, but it folds so much of itself along lines too deeply creased into forms too clean-edged to bear the kind of authorial stamp its many raw qualities beg for. Rina Sawayama’s will and vision have long been strong enough to bend individual sounds to their scope; taking on an entire holistically-packaged zeitgeist, it seems she’s finally met her match.