For the Gloriously Over-the-Top Rina Sawayama, Less Is Less

The British-Japanese musician Rina Sawayama’s kaleidoscopically eclectic debut, “Sawayama,” ranks among the best and most imaginative pop albums of this still-young decade. Gloriously excessive but intimately personal, “Sawayama” sounded like an internet browser with too many open tabs blasting away — perhaps a vintage Christina Aguilera hit, a black metal song and an episode of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” — that somehow overlapped in synergistic, mashed-up harmony.

Though she was a pop outsider who’d self-funded her head-turning 2017 EP “Rina,” Sawayama’s album, which arrived in April 2020, garnered her A-list fans like Elton John, with whom she later rerecorded a version of her queer anthem “Chosen Family,” and Lady Gaga, who tapped Sawayama and her producer Clarence Clarity to remix — with their signature over-the-top flair — a track off “Chromatica.”

But toward the end of Sawayama’s catharsis-chasing second album, “Hold the Girl,” out Friday, there’s a song so sparse and restrained, it almost sounds like the work of a different artist. “Send My Love to John” is a narrative-driven ballad, crooned over country-tinged, fingerpicked acoustic guitar, subtle enough to spotlight the pathos in Sawayama’s voice and the song’s lyrics.

“Threw away my name/It’s easier when it sounds the same,” Sawayama sings, from the perspective of an immigrant mother who came to the States in the early 1970s. The titular John is her son’s partner; Sawayama wrote it for a friend whose mother had difficulty accepting their sexual identity. The song is, in some ways, a fantasy of compassion, understanding and acceptance. “He’s there for you,” Sawayama sings on the wrenching bridge, “in all the ways I never was.”

The therapeutic practice of “reparenting” — or learning to meet, as an adult, the needs you were denied as a child — is a core idea running through “Hold the Girl.” “Reach inside and hold you close, I won’t leave you on your own,” Sawayama, 32, sings on the title track, a bracing torch song that eventually fragments into skittering electro-pop. On the theatrical “Phantom,” she once again addresses her inner child, but this time it’s her older self that needs comfort: “I was wrong to assume I would ever outgrow you/I need you now, I need you close.”

If this sounds like heavy lifting for a four-minute pop song, know that Sawayama has never stuck to light, conventional subjects. Part of what made her previous album so fresh was the way it fit under-sung human experiences — the slow but painful erosion of a friendship (“Bad Friend”), feeling disconnected from one’s birth country (“Tokyo Love Hotel”) or even the familial lineage of depression (“Akasaka Sad”) — into the familiar grammar of catchy pop songs. The gleeful gear-shifting nature of Sawayama’s sound, though, still made the album feel like joyride.

“Hold the Girl” continues to mine deep material — “Imagining” addresses a mental health crisis; the opener, “Minor Feelings,” takes its title from a Cathy Park Hong essay collection — but the protruding eccentricities that once made Sawayama’s music so distinct often sound sanded down. Previous Sawayama standouts like “XS” and “STFU!” paired blingy pop production and hip-hop swagger with crushingly aggro guitars; what elevated them beyond simple Y2K nostalgia was the way they sounded, simultaneously, like every single song playing across the radio dial in 1999.

The songs that fall flat on “Hold the Girl” — like the Kelly Clarkson-lite “Catch Me in the Air”; or the MTV reality-show-theme-song-that-never-was “Hurricanes” — instead sound like a faithful and earnest homage to a single bygone aesthetic. The big-tent affirmation of the closer, “To Be Alive,” shares a surprising affinity with Christian pop, not necessarily a sin, except for the way it tones down Sawayama’s idiosyncrasies in favor of something more universal. In creating a soft place for herself and her inner child to land, Sawayama has blunted some of her music’s sharper edges.

There is, however, a bold and satisfyingly angry stretch across the middle of the album with some of its strongest material. The antsy, strobe-lit hyperpop of “Imagining” effectively captures a loss of control, while the brash, earth-quaking “Your Age” proves again that Sawayama is the rare contemporary artist who’s managed to make effective use of nü-metal. That song, too, derives its force from a cleareyed reconsideration of the past. Sawayama might be again addressing a lack of parental compassion, but the lyrics are ambiguous enough (“Now that I’m your age, I just can’t imagine/Why did you do it, what the hell were you thinking?”) that it could also serve as a re-examination of a relationship with a large age gap, à la Demi Lovato’s recent “29.”

When things risk getting too heavy, Sawayama still knows how to take flight. The album’s best single is the devilishly fun “This Hell,” which throws a breezy shrug at high-strung homophobia (“God hates us? All right then/Buckle up, at dawn we’re riding”) and gets down to the more pressing business of partying. The mid-tempo highlight “Forgiveness” strikes a perfect balance between naturalistic sincerity and lavish melodrama. “I’m looking for signs,” Sawayama belts in an ascending melody that keeps escalating to the stratosphere. For one ecstatic moment, she sounds not like her own parent or even her own therapist — just her own co-pilot, ready to navigate the uncharted skies ahead.

Rina Sawayama
“Hold the Girl”
(Dirty Hit)