When Rina Sawayama embarked on a long-overdue victory lap for her eponymous debut album, her Dynasty tour quickly became one of last year’s most talked- about live performances. Knitting together a carefully curated blend of the Japanese-British artist’s cultural influences — from city pop and Final Fantasy to the crucial Big Pop Girls of the late 90s and early 00s — Sawayama herself felt touchable somehow, even amid the glossy production. “I love you for who you are,” she told her audience ahead of a pared- back, acoustic rendition of ‘Chosen Family’.
It’s a song that could easily teeter into cheesy earnestness in the wrong hands, but Sawayama has the charisma to pull off a hulking great slab of sentimentality like this. It’s a quality that puts her in excellent company with Lady Gaga — the artist to whom she’s most frequently compared — and on Sawayama’s second album Hold the Girl, it’s a connection that gathers even more credence.
While her debut was spiked and futuristic, its successor often goes straight for the pop jugular. With Stuart Price (Madonna, Dua Lipa) and Paul Epworth (Adele, Rihanna) on the credits sheet alongside long-time collaborators like Clarence Clarity, there’s a more straight-forward, immediate sound to Hold the Girl.
Initially, it shares a lightness with circa-2010 pop records like Gaga’s Born This Way and Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream in a first half that’s loaded with massive singles. Racing to cram in the meme-worthy references, ‘This Hell’ collages together pop-culture nods at lightning speed, gleefully embracing eternal damnation as Sawayama quotes Paris Hilton (“that’s hot!”) issues snappy sound bites (“Get in line, pass the wine, bitch, we’re going straight to Hell”). Like a more raucous sibling to ‘Chosen Family’ with a heightened grasp of camp, ‘This Hell’ takes a clear aim at American Christian conservatism and invokes the visual stylings of the virulently homophobic Westboro Baptist Church in the process, while toying with country music tropes that bring to mind both Shania Twain and Madonna’s stetson-slinging ‘Music’. Recalling both The Corrs and Christian pop star Stacie Orrico, the soaring ‘Catch Me in the Air’ is both subtler and more personal; an ode to single parents and Sawayama’s relationship with her mother.
Towards its second half, Hold the Girl becomes more fragmented. A kitschy slab of Eurotrash, ‘Frankenstein’ is divisive stuff, while ‘Imagining’ harnesses the avant-garde strains of pop that felt more dominant on Sawayama’s debut. Next to the Kelly Clarkson-nodding pop-rock steamers ‘Hurricanes’ and ‘Phantom’, ‘Send My Love to John’ feels cloying. Written from the perspective of a regretful parent who has rejected their queer child, it’s an LGBTQ+ country ballad that spends too much time focusing on the motivations of homophobes. Far stronger is the soaring closer ‘To Be Alive’, which is underpinned by a pounding beat and a hefty, transcendent chorus. Drawing on similar threads of UK garage, the title track is a joyful, gentle declaration of self-acceptance that’s surely up there with Sawayama’s best work to date.
In spite of all this, when compared to her debut there is less newness to be found on Hold the Girl, sometimes to its detriment. While SAWAYAMA was weird, warped pop that felt dynamic and unlike anything else, here Sawayama’s usually distinctive voice is at times lost in the sheer number of musical touchstones on offer. Although its blend of sincerity and camp will no doubt earn multiple comparisons to Gaga’s Born This Way, it doesn’t always forge its own singular voice in the same way.