Rina Sawayama: Hold the Girl review – poetry, power and pure pop

We live in dizzying times, in which cognitive dissonance seems like a default state. When Rina Sawayama’s debut album, Sawayama, landed in April 2020, it not only chimed with the mood of the day, it coincided with the intensity of lockdown. Sawayama was a head-spinning record that itself turned a fair few heads. Its big emotions and post-ironic sonics called to disrupted lives everywhere. It was often very good. It was also often bad, particularly when it was pointlessly tendentious.

The singer eloquently itemised the pain of her childhood and her vexed relationship with her mother, a Japanese woman raising her daughter alone in Britain in straitened circumstances. Sawayama went in hard on racist microaggressions, and she sang about her sexuality (she identifies as pansexual) and finding her chosen family in a set of songs that thumbed their collective nose at genre – nothing wrong there – but also at all subtlety. The album paired scything violins with hokey metal riffs, melodies from Broadway musicals with edgy digitals. Fortunately, Sawayama’s big voice and searing intelligence – she is a Cambridge graduate – also threw itself at 90s pop structures, wrapped itself around retro R&B.

Hugeness remains her goal. Now, big-name producers Paul Epworth (Adele) and Stuart Price (Madonna) are on hand to steer

But as authentic as Sawayama’s internal weather was, too often she ruined perfectly good songs by slapping tokenistic riffs all over them, the aural equivalent of wearing a Slayer T-shirt bought from TK Maxx. The album’s best cuts – Comme des Garçons, Bad Friend – were straight-up tunes that did not sound like Sawayama and her producer had played some contrived game of lucky dip from the false metal-plus-another-genre bowl.

Since then, she has worked with like-minded artists including Charli XCX and a hero, Elton John. But how might Sawayama follow Sawayama? Doom-metal Greatest Showman? Chamber dubstep? A track called Frankenstein seems to bode ill for cogency.

The answer should surprise no one: Sawayama knows where her allegiances truly lie. Hold the Girl is an out-and-out pop album. Its pole stars are Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga, its magnetic north 00s pop/R&B, its side-gig hi-NRG Eurodance.

Gone is the pursuit of fusion for fusion’s sake. Sawayama does make some highly eclectic choices, but these work far more coherently. The title track packs in the intro to Madonna’s Like a Prayer and a disco string flurry over a ticklish two-step beat. All that should not compute but does, landing this album firmly in 00s London, where Sawayama grew up, rebelling hard.

There’s more two-step on Imagining, and vocal effects that pitch-shift her already impressive melisma to the Middle East. The elegant pluck of Indian strings introduces Your Age. Sawayama remains eclectic, but Frankenstein turns out to be a new wave workout rather than some obnoxious cut-up.

Hugeness remains the singer’s ultimate goal. Now she is happy to take route one; some big-name producers such as Paul Epworth (Adele) and Stuart Price (Madonna) are on hand to steer. This Hell is a potent soft rock banger that, like Lil Nas X, shrugs at fundamentalist Christian carryings-on about damnation and keeps on loving. There’s something of Shania Twain singing Bon Jovi about it, but not so you’d mind.

Lofty and wistful, Catch Me in the Air bears the imprimatur of Swift. So does Phantom, a ballad whose specifics – “stickers and scented gel pens” – feel as if they learned their granularity at Swift’s knee. Country pop is a logical staging post: Send My Love to John is a tender lyric written in honour of a queer friend that weighs up the reluctance of immigrant parents to comprehend their children’s sexualities. It ends well: “Send my love to John,” offers the mum, belatedly acknowledging a same-sex partner.

Related: Pop iconoclast Rina Sawayama: ‘Drag is turning trauma into entertainment. That’s what I’m doing’

Sawayama is a really important writer, one whose lyrics also scan beautifully. The opening track, Minor Feelings, takes its title from a book by the poet Cathy Park Hong about growing up Asian in America. It names feelings that society would rather young women of colour dismissed.

If Sawayama’s debut chewed over her childhood, Hold the Girl has a lot to say about traumatic events she experienced as a young woman; it’s the result of a lot of therapy. Your Age bristles with outrage, the same kind that fuels Billie Eilish’s Your Power. Like a lot of recent albums by female pop artists hitting their 30s, this is a record about coming home to yourself, about feeling truly alive, one with the added benefit of being stuffed with bangers and not overburdened by corny shredding.