Album Review: SAWAYAMA

Thomas Wrath reviews Rina Sawyama's debut

Tom Wrath
4th August 2020
British-Japanese singer-songwriter Rina Sawayama dazzles on her debut studio album, proving her potential to break into the female hyperpop renaissance.

Having exhausted Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia in the early stages of our COVID imposed lockdown, and having complained about a lack of dynamic lyricism and bland vocals in female power-pop, a close friend recommended Rina Sawayama’s debut studio album for a breath of fresh air. As on her eponymous 2017 E.P Rina, the British-Japanese singer-songwriter worked with producer Clarence Clarity to imagine themes of capitalist tyranny, identity, female empowerment, and stereotype reliance.

For me, her second single ‘Comme Des Garcon’ is a standout track. A poppy dance beat exuding nightclub fever contrasts Rina’s monotonous mid-range assertion that “I’m so confident” and Gaga invoked phrases that border on spoken word, as she considers traditional masculinity, and how the LGBTQ+ community rejects gender roles. Fittingly, Sawayama opted to produce a lively remix of this track featuring Brazilian drag personality and prominent LGBTQ+ activist Pablo Vittar, enforcing her message of support to the community through an expansion of the original tracks abstract and memorable presentation.

Despite being a heavier, guitar-shredding anthem for left-wing activists, ‘XS’ mocks capitalist materialism and our literal excessconsumption of precious materials, similar in that its message is encapsulated in a memorable video. I’d like to imagine Greta Thunberg quietly celebrating this on her mid-Atlantic yacht by blasting it aloud on a Bluetooth speaker; yet I doubt she has access to such a commodity, or even if she realises that Rina is fighting societies ‘need’ for fast fashion, mass depletion of resources and exploitation of low income communities. ‘XS’serves as a perfect introduction to Rina’s few explicitly political tracks, and a sequel (of sorts) to her debut E. P’s ‘Cyber Stockholm Syndrome’, that lamented loss of physical communication owing to our reliance on technology. The two accentuate Clarity’s clean and over-produced production values, ironically relying on modern technology, with guitar driven synths and vocoder generating an alien-like soundscape that Rina has described as “really abrasive” and “pop that freaks you out”. Although the track draws favourable comparison with fellow protest songs, the fabricated reality communicated through heavy synths, repetition of “More” and electric guitars, are slightly less hostile than Bowie’s ‘I’m Afraid of Americans;but more abstract than Radiohead’s ‘The Numbers’. There are few contemporary pop tracks from young artists with potential that can match ‘XS’for both political message, lyricism, and video, giving me hope that Rina’s music can continue to educate and express.

‘XS’ serves as a perfect introduction to Rina’s few explicitly political tracks

Whilst the rest of SAWAYAMA cannot live up to ‘XS’’inherent catchiness and politicism, it more than makes up for it with slick production. With a crunching descending bassline and vocal screams, you could be forgiven for mistaking ‘STFU!’for a Motorhead track, yet a masterstroke chorus transition into bubblegum pop provides perfect contrast as the track fastbecomes a physical manifestation of how the world currently feels towards JK Rowling. The harshly ornamented underscore of ‘Snakeskin’ presents a distorted and claustrophobic final climax to the album, even if the emotionally weighted ballad ‘Chosen Family’provides the final moments of real poignancy and reflection. Exploring highly personal themes of belonging, with sensitivity, fragility, and an opening synth riff resembling/honouring Owl City’s ‘Fireflies’, Rina presents a rare moment of peace and reflection before the tour de force concludes.

As with any album, there are unfortunate lowlights. ‘Akasaka Sad’ is divisive, and I find myself of the opinion that it would’ve been better placed released as a stand-alone single, rather than incorporated into this project- mainly because of its similarity to both ‘Snakeskin’, ‘STFU!’ and ‘Who’s Gonna Save U Now?’. Quite simply it feels that there is one too many loud and aggressively guitar led tracks, and ‘Akasaka Sad’is the blandest of them to my ears, verging on annoying after multiple listens as I try desperately to figure out a deeper meaning. Alongside this, ‘F*ck the World’challenges the entirety of The 1975’s ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ for least memorable track of the year; although the added parenthesis ‘(Interlude)’ attempts to provide excuse for the inexcusable blandness.

Even the slower peripheral tracks such as ‘Tokyo’ carry emotional weight

Ultimately, Rina’s strength on this album comes from her versatility and ability to switch between mellow vulnerability (‘Bad Friend’) and brash social denouncement (‘Who’s Gonna Save You Now?’), engaging in damning rhetoric on the latter (“I can’t forgive you like I did before”.) She draws on her heritage and learned experience of being a pansexual, British-Japanese woman throughout the album, with fervent references to Tokyo onAkasaka Sad’, ‘Bad Friend’,and the appropriately named ‘Tokyo Love Story’. Even the slower peripheral tracks such as ‘Tokyo’ carry emotional weight, matched by Clarity in the editing suite with synths that provide a vehicle to ensure the tracks transcend dreariness. Deserving of an honourable mention are ‘Dynasty’ and ‘Paradisin’; both buying into the subversive and abstract themes of SAWAYAMA with a stunning fluency.  

Rina incorporates so many different styles and themes, yet the album somehow manages not to feel exhausting or jarring. Clocking in at just over 43 minutes with 13 tracks, meticulous production and track placement allows for a natural flow that exhilarates the listener, impressively without the need for any interludes (barring ‘F*ck the World’). Whilst the album has its high and low points, the summative effort of SAWAYAMA is prodigious, providing stiff competition for ‘Future Nostalgia’(Dua Lipa), ‘Chromatica’ (Lady Gaga) andHow I’m Feeling Now’(Charli XCX). This project results in a burgeoning debut studio album for Rina, whose artistry and lyricism is omnipresent and complemented by some gorgeous production.

Overall: 8/10

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