Photo Credit: Thurstan Redding
The title of Rina Sawayama’s second album, Hold The Girl, is taken from a phrase she learned in therapy about nurturing one’s so-called inner child. Fittingly, it’s this theme that takes center stage on the LP – from the short and sweet introduction “Minor Feelings” and the glitchy title track to the Rom-Com-Esque “Catch Me In The Air” and the Celine Dion-reminiscent “Phantom.” But on Hold The Girl, Rina also wants to do so much more than nurture her inner child – she wants to create an LGBTQ+ anthem that also calls out paparazzi treatment of female celebrities with “This Hell,” she wants to combine traditional Punjabi sounds with Nine-Inch-Nails style distortion on “Your Age” and she wants to create an album that will elevate her to new levels of commercial success, while also signaling to her OG fans that she’s just as adventurous and experimental as ever. The ambition of it all is hugely admirable.
There are lots of winning moments on Hold The Girl. Lead single “This Hell” pulls off its high-camp concept excellently; making fun of religious zealots and inverting religious concepts – Rina also pulls off irony-soaked sprechgesang delivery far better than she did on 2020’s “Paradisin.’” Even the line, “Posing for the paparazzi // F*ck what they did to Britney, to Lady Di and Whitney” – which would seem hackneyed when sung by so many other artists – seems heartfelt and genuine here, given how revered these figures are in the LGBTQ+ community of which Sawayama is a part of. The coming of age chronicle “Catch Me In The Air,” meanwhile is saccharine, but so unashamedly so that it’s hard not to fall for its charm. Though on first listen, it could be dismissed as “Disney Channel music,” it’s actually far wilder; best summarized as 2000s pop-punk meets rock balladry, with some woodwind instrumentation and airplane sound effects thrown in for good measure.
Like with SAWAYAMA, Hold The Girl’s best moments occur when Rina makes displays of profound talent and complex musicianship sound effortless – which is why it’s disappointing that so much of the album sounds uncharacteristically labored over. On SAWAYAMA, Rina made bizarre genre combinations (nu-metal meets Spice Girls-style pop anyone?) seem like matches made in Heaven. On Hold The Girl, the genre-mixing is somehow less adventurous but more awkward – best demonstrated by “Your Age,” but also by the title track – which begins as a power ballad but is soon consumed by a 2-step beat. In many ways, Hold The Girl symbolizes the dreaded sophomore slump and all the factors that lead to it – the mixture of heightened ambition combined with newfound pressures, and often, some level of creative stasis.
Whereas SAWAYAMA was merely inspired by the music of Rina’s childhood, much of Hold The Girl sounds as if it was directly lifted from it. “Hurricanes” and “Phantom” sound like Celine Dion b-sides; overblown pop ballads where Rina coasts on, rather than truly utilizes, her fantastic vocal ability. Some of the musical traditions from Rina’s childhood, it turns out, are better left confined to history. Of course, there’s also the drop in lyrical quality that pervades Hold The Girl. Sure, the simpler imagery may be a reflection of Rina’s attempts to reconnect with her inner child, but there’s no denying that a terrific decline in songwriting has taken place when complex meditations of capitalism, familial trauma, and heritage are replaced by clichéd metaphors about how, “flowers still look pretty when they’re dying.” The exception to this, of course, is the touching memoir-like “Send My Love To John,” but coming over half an hour into the album, it’s hard to get over how out-of-place this minimalist acoustic ballad sounds.
Hold The Girl simultaneously asks a lot from listeners, and also not that much at all. On the one hand, it asks you to overlook how nearly all the qualities that made SAWAYAMA great – cutting-edge production, profound messaging, and successful-against-all-odds genre-fusions – have now been dimmed or outright eliminated. On the other hand, there’s still no denying the sheer level of fun contained within these thirteen tracks – which for all their faults, remain deeply melodic, hooky as all hell, and, perhaps most importantly, deep sincere. Perhaps, then, that is Hold The Girl’s saving grace – while many of Rina’s idiosyncrasies have been muted, one thing that hasn’t been is her loudly beating bleeding heart.