Rina Sawayama has been learning how to parent. Not a child of her own, mind you, but the child she once was. On her second album Hold the Girl, a follow-up to her genre-mashing 2020 debut, the British-Japanese pop star sits down with her younger self for some frank conversations about childhood trauma and open wounds. Somehow, she also manages to have some fun along the way.
With its delicate guitar and soft synths, “Minor Feelings” is a lovely but uncharacteristically sombre opener for Sawayama, an artist whose default setting is 11. It doesn’t take long for things to heat up, though. The title track, which sees the singer comfort her younger self, is a hypnotic, Gaga-style whirligig of garage and disco strings. “This Hell” deploys a foot-stomping, dance-ready diatribe against homophobes with nods to Shania Twain – including the obligatory “Let’s go girls!” at the intro. “Saw a poster on the corner opposite the motel/ Turns out I’m going to hell if I keep on being myself,” she belts on this anthem celebrating queer joy.
Never an artist to stick to a single lane, Sawayama flits between moods across the album. Influences range from Madonna to Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson to The Corrs. “Send My Love to John” is a downbeat country number written from the perspective of immigrant parents in the Seventies. Album closer “To Be Alive”, meanwhile, is a bombastic affirmation of life with a beat that brushes against hyper-pop. There is a new forthrightness to her lyrics, the kind often found in country music. Whether Sawayama is attempting to process an early trauma with the electro-bhangra sound of “Your Age”, or repair the fractured relationship with her mother on the sing-song ballad “Catch Me In The Air”, her lyrics remain clear-eyed and plain-speaking.
This album also includes some of her best vocal work: a gorgeous, swelling tenor capable of filling out the cheap seats. Hold the Girl is eclectic and searching, a little glossier than Sawayama’s debut, perhaps, but also much more introspective.