Rina Sawayama – Hold The Girl
By Tyler Mandell | Top Tracks: Frankenstein, Hold the Girl, Minor Feelings | Worst Tracks: Hurricanes
Photo Credit: Google Photos
Synopsis: Hold the Girl has songs as good as anything Rina Sawayama has ever done, but too much of it feels misguided and limiting after such a promising debut album.
Going into Hold the Girl, the sophomore album from Rina Sawayama, I was worried about how it would be. The singles leading into it weren’t necessarily bad, but most of them lacked the eclectic lyrics and experimentation that her earlier work had. Her debut album, 2020’s Sawayama, wasn’t perfect but it had moments that reminded me of MIA and even early Bjork, with a voice and style all her own. Her newest album is an attempt to be more personal and introspective, with a more mature sound. This isn’t necessarily a problem on its own, but in trying to evolve herself she’s watered down or ignored what made her work so promising to begin with.
Hold the Girl opens promisingly with the ballad “Minor Feelings”, fitting the more personal sound she was trying for. Her vocals are quite passionate and it’s a rather inviting album intro. However, the rest of the record doesn’t live up to its promise, with the most consistent problem being that too much of it sounds weirdly dated, like pop rock or adult contemporary music from the late 2000s. The first two singles, “This Hell” and “Catch Me in the Air” respectively, are the most evocative of this issue, with both sounding like they could’ve been made by Lady Gaga or even Katy Perry years ago. The former admittedly works as a campy, fluffy dance-pop hit but “Catch Me in the Air” is just an overproduced feel-good pop song that’s too clean and tasteful to leave any impact. (Non-single “Forgiveness” also has the same issues.)
Some of the songs here return to the unique genre mixing style of Sawayama, though generally unsuccessfully. The title track is a mix of a gorgeous gospel-ballad with a UK garage dance beat, and it hits a lot of the emotional beats Rina was going for. While the drumbeats can be too stilted to really pop, the key change towards the end makes the song fully successful. (Though I wonder if this song would’ve been better towards the end of the record?) “Holy (Til You Let Me Go)” is reminiscent of 90s house but it’s too soft and restrained to succeed and has no edge or abrasiveness to play off. Even the song “Your Age” feels too clean and toothless despite its Nine Inch Nails-type industrial sound.
There’re some songs here that at least somewhat work for me. My favorite track is “Frankenstein”, which is a wonderful dance-punk song reminiscent of LCD Soundsystem or St. Vincent, with killer drum n’ bass beats added onto it and a commanding performance from Rina. It was absolutely the highlight of her show when I saw her live. “Imagining” isn’t perfect as the odd vocal effects and lyrics aren’t great, but I suppose it’s fine as a quirky hyperpop-styled dance tune, and it grew on me with repeated listens. I wasn’t huge on “Phantom” as a single, but it worked better as a penultimate track, culminating in a more emotional end to the record. It also has a nice 80s power ballad sound and an always impressive vocal performance.
Unfortunately, the other songs towards the end of the album aren’t much to talk about, such as “Hurricanes”, the worst track here, with its poorly produced and generic pop-punk sound. While I’ve given a lot of praise to Rina’s singing, some of her vocal performances feel too samey and she can oversing at times, such as the folk ballad “Send My Love to John” that lacks emotional weight due to its large vocal presence clashing with the muted and somber instrumental. This issue is most egregious on the cheesy loser “To Be Alive”, which despite its elegant garage beat, is unsuccessful because of its sappiness and vocals that sound dull and too much like other songs here. It works as a closer in terms of relating to the album’s themes, but it’s nothing truly special. If anything, I think the album suffers a lot from having too many ballads like this, even if one can appreciate how Rina is opening up a lot more with more direct and personal lyricism in those songs.
Overall, despite some highlights, the album is a big disappointment and a step backward for such a promising artist. It’s not dislikeable or even really a bad album, but so much of it just feels like Rina misunderstanding her appeal and making songs that lack distinctive touches, as if anyone could’ve made them. This review, admittedly, may read as a touch harsh and you might be in the right mood and like her more mainstream-sounding style on this record, even if it mostly didn’t work for me. I’ll say this though: I still have a lot of hope for her future work and enough faith in her that I feel she’ll make course corrections later. If anything, the bright spots on Hold the Girl are enough to show she’s still one of the most unique pop stars around.
Overall rating: 5.5/10