Ever since her debut studio album SAWAYAMA released just two years ago, singer-songwriter Rina Sawayama has seen exponential growth in her fanbase and artistic reach. She gained critical acclaim with hits like “STFU!” and “XS” gracing the airwaves. It was a collection of pop-punk and metal songs dedicated to nostalgia, family legacies, and confronting the state of the world in the most impassioned way and it was one of the best albums of 2020. Her latest album Hold The Girl is dramatically introspective in an incredibly different, more melancholic way.
Riding the soft rock, dance-pop wave wasn’t exactly unexpected given her previous project, but she still surprises us with her poeticism. Each of the thirteen tracks interconnect to tell the story of a child whose sense of self was slowly chipped away over time. Listeners will accompany them as they pick up the pieces of their innocence.
Setting the Scene
Kids are perceptive. They know when something isn’t right or when they’re being treated unfairly. Too often when they have something to say, they’ll go unnoticed or dismissed by adults who don’t see the value in their experiences. The opening track “Minor Feelings,” represents the overall essence of Sawayama’s thematic message.
We’re introduced to her former self as she sings about having to swallow her emotions for the sake of others. The very first lyric hits home: “How am I supposed to feel when you tell me that nothing in my life is real?” That universal feeling of helplessness can be all-encompassing.
“Frankenstein,” a personal favorite, is a quick-tempo allusion to Mary Shelley’s classic sci-fi novel. The story goes that a mad scientist builds a living, breathing thing known as The Creature. He is vilified and misunderstood as nothing more than a mere monster — all before he even utters a word. He retaliates in violent ways, and eventually meets his demise at the hands of his own creator. Sawayama compares her own plight to The Creature’s, further illustrating her desire for acceptance: “I’m trying to be normal, but trauma is immortal.”
The album builds to the cathartic climax. These songs symbolize when the protagonist has finally reached their breaking point, and everyone around them witnesses their true form claw its way to the surface. Sawayama not only embraces this part of herself, but encourages listeners to do the same.
“Minor Feelings” smoothly transitions with static-like raindrops into “Hold The Girl.” It’s a compelling song evocative of newfound strength. And what happens after you’ve discovered what you’re truly capable of? You party. The lead single, “This Hell” is a giant middle finger to prejudice, and the music video manages to also leave a mark. There is even a nod to notable women who have fell victim to society’s bigotry (“Fuck what they did to Britney, to Lady Di’, and Whitney”).
“Holy (Til You Let Me Go)” is also about taking those stones (religious judgement) and firing back in ways that are good for the soul. She insists, “I was innocent when you said I was evil / I took your stones and I built a cathedral.” Her light simply can’t be subdued, not for long.
In “Hurricanes” she prays for a saving grace (clear skies), as she flies away in search for an escape. Similarly, in “Catch Me In The Air,” she speaks about the fear and excitement of leaving the nest as her mother instilled courage in her: “I was afraid, but you put the wings on me.” Both tracks are different in tone, but neither are void of faith. Hopelessness is never something I felt while listening to this album, even the more dejected tracks still hold a glimmer of optimism for her future.
Fade To Black Tracks
After the dust has settled and the party is over, the remains of Sawayama’s inner turmoil lay scattered in front of her. Now it’s time for the finale and she has a decision to make. Gently and methodically, she could pick everything up one by one. Taking only what’s needed and storing the rest as a reminder of her strength. Or, she could forge her way through the rubble with nothing but sheer willpower. But in doing so, the mess will always be there, tainting her rear view. Or, she could just stand still. Motionless. Waiting for the courage to finally approach the wreckage and get her hands dirty.
“Forgiveness” is a beautiful song about a tricky concept. Many believe that forgiveness is the only way to be content. But what if you’re not ready? We rarely acknowledge just how difficult (and at times borderline impossible) it is to do. In spite of what others may think, we can only heal at our own pace. Otherwise, we may find ourselves dazed and confused along that “winding road.”
On the other hand, being apologetic for your wrongdoings takes an immense amount of reflection, and the ability to put your ego aside. Something that the parent in “Send My Love To John” definitely struggled with. Her falsetto is captivating over a simple acoustic guitar, as she croons: “And I’m sorry for the thing’s I’ve done / I misguided love, to my only son.”
Hold The Girl ends with “To Be Alive,” the perfect light at the end of a confusing and chaotic tunnel. It’s a satisfying victory as the audience can finally breathe a sigh of relief along with Rina Sawayama herself. Like a movie, this album paints a beautifully cohesive picture.