Pop

Rina Sawayama Repackages Therapeutic Breakthroughs On ‘Hold The Girl’

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Mercury is currently in retrograde for the third time this year. The celestial phenomenon has earned something of a bad reputation, one that villainizes its interference with communication and travel, often resulting in delays and misunderstandings. Whenever it circles back around, the best advice anyone can offer to get through it is to hold on tight and hope for the best — it’ll be over soon. On “Imagining,” a deep cut from her newly released sophomore album Hold The Girl, Rina Sawayama looks towards the planet for an explanation of the emotional whirlwind she’s been experiencing herself. “I don’t know if Mercury’s in retrograde,” she states, pondering: “Am I okay?”

But the three-week period doesn’t have to be a time of fearful hiding. Mercury, after all, is the planet of communication, intellect, memory, and transportation. Even when it’s emotionally difficult to dig deep into the past, retrograde can serve as an instrumental opportunity for reflection as a means of healing and moving forward. For Sawayama, the process of creating Hold The Girl consisted of this kind of stark reflection, re-calibration, and reconstruction on a mass scale. The British-Japanese pop songwriter pulls from a well of emotion throughout the deeply introspective record, repackaging therapeutic breakthroughs about healing her inner child and re-parenting herself with the type of grace her own parents weren’t allowed.

While her own revelations came from consistently interrogating her upbringing in therapy and studying perspective-shifting self-help books, Sawayama doesn’t use Hold The Girl to report back her findings with the intention of leading anyone else through the healing process. The promise that she makes on the album’s title track — “Reach inside and hold you close / I won’t leave you on your own” — is to herself, repairing the relationship with the emotionally neglected young child within her. Elsewhere, on “Phantom,” the singer claws back all of the bits and pieces she’s torn from herself and given away over the years, pleading through swelling strings: “Inner child, come back to me / I wanna tell you that I’m sorry.”

Sawayama mostly keeps relatability at arms length throughout the verses, her vocal performance sounding at times as though she’s forming a physical barrier between the version of herself she’s trying to protect and the rest of the world. But to the listening ear, one yearning for warmth and connection, these sentiments can feel personal, even parasocial, despite their hyper-specific origins. When she does invite the masses to join forces with her, and to find their own healing, it happens most often during the choral moments that bind them together as one.

“All my life, I’ve felt out of place / All my life, I’ve been saving face,” she sings on the opening track “Minor Feelings,” a 2-minute, reverb-driven anthem. “Well, all these minor feelings / Are majorly breaking me down.” Sawayama captures the hedonistic nature of dance music on the track, which functions as a thesis statement for the record, placing a spotlight on all of the small moments that pile up and threaten to burst at the seams when she finally reaches the dance floor.

Hold The Girl builds a bridge of accessibility through the kind of grand scale pop hooks Sawayama received praise for on her 2020 debut album SAWAYAMA. Whether exquisitely executing Kelly Clarkson-style 2000s pop-rock on “Hurricanes” or evoking unhinged melodrama á la Marina And The Diamonds on “Frankenstein,” the album offers catharsis through grandiose sing-alongs that are as fitting for a high-production stadium show as they are for cavernous venues that can only squeeze in around a thousand people. At the center of the album, “Holy (Til You Let Me Go)” uses explosive industrial dance to wedge open a door to complete escapism, ushering clusters of sweat-drenched bodies moving in tandem with one another through the opening.

When the nu-metal dream SAWAYAMA arrived, nearly every venue and club was shuttered in the midst of the pandemic, making Hold The Girl the singer’s first proper album release. But the sonic palette explored throughout the record — one that roots itself deeply in everything from European house music to melodic country with a twist — doesn’t lean into dance music with the shallow intention of celebrating the return of live music. Instead, Sawayama embraces the function of these sounds and wields the emotion they evoke as a means of communication.

“Forgiveness” creates a sense of safety through joyously shimmering production and tender delivery of the reassuring notion that healing doesn’t have to be linear, or simple. Hold The Girl marks the first record on which Sawayama locked in with a vocal producer, the benefits of which shine through as she uses her vocal range as a tool for conveying these varying complex feelings. More effectively, on “Your Age,” Sawayama evokes the spirit of Nine Inch Nails, using bulldozing industrial rock to communicate rageful disbelief. “Cause now that I’m your age, I just can’t imagine,” she sings with tamed fury, asking: “Why did you do it? What the hell were you thinking?”

On the album’s country-influenced cuts, Sawayama taps into the genre’s affinity for truthful storytelling in songwriting. Lead single “This Hell” opens with a nod to Shania Twain’s “Man, I Feel Like a Woman,” quickly spilling into a rodeo-ready country-pop party that embraces banding together through community. On the stripped-back acoustic ballad “Send My Love to John,” Sawayama sings from the perspective of an immigrant mother issuing an overdue apology for not accepting her son’s queer identity, drawing inspiration directly from the life of a close friend. In a way, she offers a proxy encounter for someone listening who may yearn to be on the receiving end of a genuine apology, but may never have the chance to experience one of their own.

Hold The Girl comes to a close with a healing self-care lesson of its own. “Flowers still look pretty when they’re dying / Blue skies always there behind the rain, rain / Oceans swallow all of our feelings / I know it’s just temporary pain,” Sawayama sings on the celebratory “To Be Alive.” Whether elating or soul-crushing, no emotion is permanent. Regardless of whether it lasts for three weeks of a celestial retrograde period, or for entire decades at a time, the guiding message is all the same: hold on tight and hope for the best — it’ll be over soon.

Hold The Girl is out now via Dirty Hit. Get it here.

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