Review: “Hold the Girl” Holds Listeners’ Attention and Hearts
Rina Sawayama’s “Hold the Girl” is a cathartic journey toward self acceptance and liberation
On Sept. 16, Rina Sawayama released her second studio album, “Hold the Girl,” containing 13 songs. The album’s reception immediately reflected the acclaim the Japanese-British artist gained following the release of her first album, “Sawayama.” “Hold the Girl” debuted at number three on the U.K. Album Charts and marked Sawayama’s first entry on the U.S. Billboard 200. Although not quite a chart topper yet, Sawayama has amassed an audience of dedicated fans, and after listening to this new album, I can safely count myself among them.
As someone who had previously only listened to a handful of Sawayama’s songs, I wasn’t sure of exactly what to expect from “Hold the Girl.” After sitting down for my initial listen on first-floor Berry, I was met with an exhilarating symphony of complex emotions and melodies. To attempt to classify Sawyama’s music within a single genre would be a dismissal of her range and versatility. While it exists somewhere on the spectrum of pop, she regularly infuses her music with elements of other genres, including heavy metal and R&B. By drawing from such a wide variety of musical traditions, she is able to weave intensely personal experiences into music that is accessible and resonant for any listener.
Listening to “Hold the Girl” is like sifting through a box of letters; each song contains a heartfelt message directed at a figure from Sawayama’s past. These individuals include lovers, relatives and even entire institutions. She explores each relationship through a medium of evocative lyrics and captivating rhythms, however the most intense relationship Sawayama portrays in this album is that with herself. The album opens with “Minor Feelings”, a two-minute ballad that establishes several of the album’s major themes: the lingering impact of childhood trauma and the journey towards self-reclamation.
This dialogue between Sawayama and a younger version of herself continues throughout the album and is exemplified in the penultimate song “Phantom” with the lyrics “Inner child, come back to me. I wanna tell you that I’m sorry.” It’s evident that Sawayama has not yet arrived at total self acceptance. As many of our former teen idols settle into adulthood and abandon their former angst-driven personas and subject matter — think Lorde’s rebranding with “Solar Power” — it can be comforting to see artists still producing works that reflect the emotional tumult of leaving childhood behind.
Nostalgic instrumentals containing influences from the music made during Sawayama’s youth are woven into the songs, enforcing this introspective look into Sawayama’s past. Songs like “Hurricanes” feature echoes of an early 2000s Kelly Clarkson, and “Frankenstein” was intentionally written to emulate the indie rock scene of 2005. Matt Tong of the British rock band Bloc Party even provided a drum sequence for the song, further emphasizing Sawayama’s commitment to detail.
In order to achieve complete self-acceptance, Sawayama suggests that she must also liberate herself from the internalized homophobia that stems from her Christian upbringing. This religious motif makes its first appearance in the album’s title track, which climaxes with a gospel-like rendition of its chorus. It is through subtle details like this that she artfully subverts the influence of the religion which once made her repress her identity, instead using religious motifs to embrace her pansexual identity. The infectiously catchy “This Hell” features more overt religious references. In this song, Sawayama welcomes condemnation for her sexuality with pride through the lyrics in the chorus “invitation to eternal damnation.” “This Hell” is simultaneously a rejection of the shame imposed on her and an unabashed display of queer joy.
“Holy (Til You Let Me Go)” introduces a vulnerable reckoning with the trauma born from a toxic relationship: Sawayama addresses someone who weaponized her faith against her. The line “Found my peace when I lost my religion” of the chorus reveals that abandoning both this individual and the oppressive religious institutions was the key to self-liberation. This ability to explore formative experiences in her life through multiple angles makes the album and Sawayama’s overall craft remarkable. However, she doesn’t limit herself to writing from just her own perspective.
As a songwriter, Sawayama easily taps into the emotional core of any experience, even those outside herself. In “Send my Love to John,” she exposes the universal feelings of regret, shame and hope that undercut a mother’s relationship to her son, whose sexuality is not accepted by his mother’s religion. This song was inspired by a friend’s story, but still deals with dynamics Sawayama encountered with her own mother.
Instead of singing from the perspective most similar to her own, she chooses that of the mother in “Send my Love to John.” This signifies the evolution in her outlook toward the familial figures in her own life who neglected to accept her for who she was. Years of reflection and maturation have shed light on the mistreatment Sawayama received when she was younger. Although true forgiveness may not yet be attainable, she now has the understanding necessary to continue on her own healing process.
This sobering number ushers in the final couple songs of the album. With soaring vocals and powerful instrumentals, they feel like a culmination of the emotional journey Sawayama has led the listener on throughout the album. The final track “To Be Alive” acknowledges all the pain and heartache that has led to the present moment and relishes in the triumph of having overcome so much. It is the perfect end to an album that has navigated such weighty themes of trauma and self-reclamation. It is honest yet optimistic; Sawayama meets fans where they are in their own personal journeys and beckons them towards total self-acceptance.
Even the songs with the most upbeat melodies pack an emotional punch through Sawayama’s soulful lyrics and vocals. Few albums have had me fighting back both tears and the urge to dance — and that is no easy balance to strike. This latest work of self-analysis is as cathartic for the listener as it must have been for Sawayama herself. Words on a page or screen cannot capture the complete experience of this album; for that you’ll have to go listen to it yourself.