Review: 'Sawayama' is musically fascinating, but falls short of greatness

by Jack Hargrove | 4/27/20 3:00am

Every 20 years, like clockwork, American culture repeats itself. This does not mean that the same exact trends are recycled in an endless loop. Rather, after about 20 years, outdated culture becomes “retro,” and nostalgia for past decades shapes new styles and artwork. The 1970s had “Happy Days,” and the 1990s had “That ’70s Show.” In a more abstract sense, the infatuation with the glamorous lifestyles of the fabulously wealthy in the 1980s inspired reality television and “Gossip Girl” in the 2000s. As we enter the 2020s, the music stylings of the early aughts are making a comeback. Artists like Charli XCX and Slayyyter evoke Britney Spears-style pop, while Poppy and Grimes both recently released music that is heavily reminiscent of nu metal.

In 2017, Rina Sawayama self-published her first collection of songs, a mini-album titled “Rina.” In only 24 minutes, Sawayama packed her project with eight perfect pop songs, heavily inspired by the turn-of-the-century pop music of Britney Spears and R&B production reminiscent of The Neptunes. Instead of songs about relationships, however, the songs on “Rina” explored themes of depression, drug addiction and an unhealthy attachment to social media. This mini-album remains one of the most exhilarating first offerings of any pop artist, and fans eagerly waited to find out what she would do next.

Nearly three years later, Sawayama has finally released her debut studio album, named simply “Sawayama.” On this debut, Sawayama discusses themes that revolve around her relationships with her family, both biological and chosen. Musically, “Sawayama” provides a fascinating pastiche of various early 2000s sounds. But while “Sawayama” is a fantastic debut album, it falls just short of reaching the potential implied by “Rina.”

The album begins dramatically, with the song “Dynasty” introducing one of the primary 2000s styles utilized on “Sawayama”: nu metal. The crunching sound of the guitars and vocal flourishes in the chorus are a clear homage to the early aughts nu metal band Evanescence. Sawayama explores nu metal much more deeply on her third track, “STFU!” The booming, aggressive guitar riff and low growls sound unlike anything Sawayama has released before. The angry lyrics, including, “Have you ever thought about taping your big mouth shut?/’Cause I have, many times, many times,” compliment the harsh instrumental. Nu metal influence appears subtly across the rest of the record, particularly in the guitar line for “XS.”

Pop sounds from the early 2000s also feature throughout the album, although not as much as on “Rina.” Track six “Paradisin’” sounds like a television theme song, with its high tempo and simple melody. The vocals on the tenth track “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?” sound just like Christina Aguilera in 2002. The song “Akasaka Sad” has a synth backing instrumental that evokes the mid-2000s. However, these pop synths are combined with modern trap elements, especially in the percussion. In fact, before the chorus, Sawayama goes so far as to imitate the triplet flow, a vocal cadence associated with trap artists like Migos. Similarly, the second track “XS” provides a modern take on 2000s pop, this time through its lyrics. “XS” describes the luxury and opulence that accompany a wealthy lifestyle in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Sawayama points out the absurdity of such a lifestyle in the lines, “Flex, when all that’s left is immaterial/And the price we paid is unbelievable/And I’m taking in as much as I can hold/Well, here are the things you’ll never know.” Instead of playing the premise straight like was common 20 years ago, Sawayama shows ample self-awareness and draws attention to the wealth inequality in the modern world.

While the pastiche of early 2000s musical styles is brilliant, it is important to keep in mind that the instrumentals are only half of the record. Lyrically, Sawayama explores her identity and the various groups she considers family. The first of these groups is, as implied by the title of the album, her biological family. The opening track “Dynasty” analyzes the ways in which Sawayama has inherited the troubles of her ancestors with the line “I’m a dynasty/The pain in my vein is hereditary.” Throughout her life, Sawayama has dealt with financial and mental health issues passed down from her parents. At the end of the chorus, Sawayama implores the listener to join her in overcoming hereditary issues, asking, “Won’t you break the chain with me?” Sawayama references these mental health issues again in the song “Akasaka Sad,” singing, “You make me/Akasaka sad/’Cause I’m a sucker, sucker, so I suffer/Akasaka Sawayama/Just like my mother.”

On other tracks, Sawayama writes about her relationships with her friends. In the song “Bad Friend,” Sawayama wistfully reflects on how easy it is to fall out of touch with a close friend. In the chorus, she sings, “I’m so good at crashing in/Making sparks and shit, but then/I’m a bad, I’m a bad, I’m a bad friend.” Later, on the track “Chosen Family,” Sawayama shows appreciation for the support she receives from the LGBTQ community as a bisexual and pansexual woman. She notes that “We don’t need to be related to relate/We don’t need to share genes or a surname/You are, you are/My chosen, chosen family.” These non-familial relationships help support Sawayama when her family cannot.

Though most of the songs on the album have fantastic lyrics, there are a few that are bland and generic. “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?” is a generic condemnation of those who are stuck in their ways. Sawayama makes no reference to anyone or anything specific, making this track sound out of place among all of the personal tracks on the album. While the lyrics of “Love Me 4 Me” are commendable both for their deeply personal nature and positive message of self-love, the overall message feels trite. Pop songs have explored this topic a thousand times over, making the song uninteresting. Finally, the track “F–k This World (Interlude)” expresses legitimate grievances about climate change and inequality, but lyrics like “Let’s start a new life on Mars/Forget it, let’s get f–ked up” are immature and unproductive.

The final track, “Snakeskin,” provides a thrilling conclusion to the album and may be its finest song. The varied structure not only keeps listeners on their toes but also makes this song sound unlike any others on the album. While the influence of early 2000s pop can be heard throughout, Sawayama comes into her own, creating a completely unique sound. The interpolation of a melody from the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack is exactly the type of reference I expected going into “Sawayama.” The lyrics are also clever; Sawayama sings, “Buy my expensive, exclusive, pain wear/My fine couture is your branded repayment/I tear my soul into two so that you can/P-p-p-pretend despair.” Here, Sawayama expresses the discomfort she feels making commercial music out of her own painful experiences. The song ends with a recording of a conversation Sawayama had with her mother, recalling the motif of familial relationships.

Overall, songs like “Snakeskin,” “XS,” “Dynasty” and “Akasaka Sad” were what I had hoped the entire album would sound like. Every song on this album is good, but a few are more conventional than they could be for an artist with as much potential as Sawayama. “Rina” was as close to perfection as I have ever heard on a mini-album, and I truly believe that she will someday replicate that on a full album. “Sawayama” was a step in the right direction, but it is nowhere near the best record that she is capable of making.