Rina Sawayama recovers and rediscovers herself with Hold the Girl

Not since Lady Gaga released Born This Way have I been this excited for an artist or album, and Rina Sawayama doesn’t disappoint on her sophomore release Hold the Girl.

From the first measures of “Minor Feelings,” I had a feeling this album was going to hit me hard. So much of it is an apology to her younger self, whether directly on songs like “Phantom” and the title track or indirectly on tracks like “To Be Alive” and “Holy (Til You Let Me Go).” The latter is an especially sharp knife to anyone who has been “shut out of religious communities for being queer,” as Sawayama said to Apple Music. The concept of being “holy til you let me go” is a blunt and biting critique on how often the church is forgiving and gracious only to those they accept while shunning all others.

Religious trauma is the most apparent connective tissue to these songs. You’re hard-pressed to find a song that doesn’t reference church, forgiveness and similar themes. It’s not the only trauma Sawayama unpacks, however. “Minor Feelings” examines how racist microaggressions can build up and be majorly debilitating. If any of that is something you have personal experience with, “buckle up, at dawn we’re riding.”

The immediate standout track is the first single “This Hell.” Between a Paris Hilton-esque “that’s hot” before the second chorus and a “let’s go girls” that grabs Shania Twain by the hair, it’s a full-on Y2K pastiche with a dash of disco. However, the song isn’t just a party serving wine and early 2000’s cheese. In fact, “This Hell” is a powerful rallying cry to queer kids spurned by the faith they were raised with. Sawayama not only decries billboards and bigots who insist on damning those who disagree, but also parasitic paparazzi when she practically snarls, “fuck what they did to Britney/to Lady Di and Whitney.” A pride anthem for a new generation, this song struts all the way from a white wedding to the honky-tonk reception.

Much of this album is rooted in country music, with Kacey Musgraves and Dolly Parton being cited directly as inspirations. Both “This Hell” and “Phantom” have wailing guitar solos that communicate the tone of their songs, whether defiantly euphoric or heart-achingly sincere,=. “Catch Me in the Air,” the second single off Hold the Girl, wouldn’t be out of place on Musgraves’s 2018 album Golden Hour. Lightweight and boundlessly confident, it’s a lively track and a welcome respite from heavier songs to come. The most overt country-influenced track on the album is “Send My Love to John,” an acoustic guitar ballad with haunting vocals that sound nearly siren-esque.

“Your Age” is a song for anyone whose favorite track on the self-titled was “STFU!” The production is reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails with elements of Linkin Park, sonically less chaotic and harsh but no less angry. It feels like it ends a little too soon for my liking, but still a fantastic track for fans of her heavier tracks. “Imagining” draws on these while twisting them up with dance music and the aforementioned Nashville influence into a genre-fuck that’s manic, lost and confused in only the best ways. “Hurricanes” is a fascinating track that feels like Sawayama and her creative team found a way to split the difference between Bon Jovi and Jimmy Eat World, equal parts “Livin on a Prayer” and “Bleed American.”

A hidden gem of Hold the Girl is “Frankenstein.” At its core, it’s the sound of a woman who has exhausted herself with recovery, a sentiment anyone who’s faced their own trauma head-on can relate to. Personally, I like to describe therapy as self-surgery without anesthesia. It comes through, painfully but perfectly, in this desperate plea for someone, whether a lover or a therapist, to put the pieces of her back together in any way they can.

Honestly, the entire album feels like a confused genre-fuck in a way that is not only sonically engaging, but thematically appropriate. Recovery, regardless of what you’re recovering from, isn’t a linear process. There will be moments of deep pain and missteps, but also moments of triumph and growth. It’s okay if you need to cry more than you need to dance, or vice versa. Ending the album with “To Be Alive” is an absolutely brilliant decision for exactly that reason: no matter your journey, the ideal end result will be coming out the other side knowing “what it feels like to be alive.”

Beyond that, it’s brilliantly performed and incredibly well-produced. Sawayama’s vocals are indescribable, harnessing every emotion she needed and unleashing them all with unparalleled passion and fury. There is no point where she falters, even on the songs where she rips herself open and bleeds all over the lyrics. The other standout performance comes from guitarist Vixen Jamieson, who absolutely kills it. No matter what he was paid, it wasn’t enough. Neither was the person who decided the key change on “Hold the Girl” would go up instead of down.

Overall, Hold the Girl is an outstanding album free of skips or even the slightest misstep. Regardless of your trauma, or lack thereof, it is easily one of the best albums you’ll hear this year.

Hold The Girl by Rina Sawayama was released on September 16 and is currently available to stream and purchase.

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