ALBUM REVIEW // ‘SAWAYAMA’ is Unapologetic, Paradigm-Subverting, and “devastating” – Alisha Isherwood Reports

It’s the 17th April. None of us have left the house in centuries. Nothing is new. Even the news is old news. But, what’s this? Rina Sawayama’s debut album Sawayama has dropped. This is very new. This was enough to get me out of bed before noon.

Sawayama is an album I’ve been looking forward to for over a year. It did not disappoint. Joining forces with producer Clarence Clarity (who also produced her previous EP, RINA), this album feels like a huge showcase of her impressive vocal range, unique creative visions and I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude. Blending genres together to create quirky pop fusions is her speciality, and Sawayama only proves that she’s the pop icon that will emerge this decade.

Still from the music video for Comme Des Garcons, what a queen. look at her.

The album begins with Dynasty, triumphant and ambitious, completely embodying the liberating (but fearful) confidence that comes from carrying your family’s legacy on with you, whilst stepping away and becoming something new entirely.  From the first words, Sawayama’s vocals are strong, emotional, a little low and rumbly, embodying everything great about the pop scene she is dominating at the moment. Opening the album with epic guitar riffs, strings, and glittering synths makes sure you know that Sawayama is that bitch taking the pop scene hostage and making it into something of her own.

immediately, we’re then hit with the three leading singles, including XS, and STFU!; two songs that have been playing in the back of my head since they dropped a few months back. XS is about wanting a little bit too much in terms of wealth, fame, and opulence – and fuck capitalism, unless it’s Miss Sawayama who is selling it. There’s soft, sultry vocals, with Sawayama whispering ‘more’ and ‘excess’ down your ear, which (unfortunately) is interrupted by oozey climbing metal guitar riffs that completely throw you off guard. It’s an incredibly ambitious crossover which continues with STFU!, the pop-metal song about microaggressions that I didn’t realise I needed. It’s become the ultimate stomp around your room kind of song, creepy man stop looking at me on the tube kind of song, PLEASE don’t ask me a rude question kind of song. It’s aggressive, it’s unapologetic, it’s sarcastic, and it’s exactly what the world needs during this weird time.

Next is one of my personal favourites, Comme Des Garçons, a song about embracing confidence, ego, and mustering the same feeling of entitlement that men have held over the centuries. There’s no metal guitars this time, instead, it’s eccentric electro pop: dramatic, defiant, and unexpectedly sexual. The panting leading up to the chorus, the silky, whispering lyrics ‘hot like a fever’ are enough to make anyone a little bit flushed – and yet Rina is doing it ‘like the boys’ – the music video for this track is goofy and androgynous, it’s almost satirical, but really it’s just unabashed self-expression. The kind of wild freedom that “the boys” have always got to play with. The synths are soft but intense, droning but subtle, and her vocals glide over the instrumentation perfectly, especially in the dance-influenced hook. This, like the previous songs, feels like a perfectly executed risk. It works incredibly well.

The next three songs are glossy, bubble gum pop, with Akasaka Sad sounding a tiny bit like Timberlake’s Cry me a River, but in the best possible way: the cool rising chorus, the R&B beats, the weird glistening synth sounds, but sadly no JT. Then, Paradisin’ feels like it could easily fit into the Pacman soundtrack with its squeaky 8-bit instrumentation, despite the relatively sad lyrics. It’s a true testament to growing up with strict parents and the desire for childhood freedom. Love Me 4 Me reflects all the anxieties of womanhood, and the pressure to be sweet, but not a pushover, sexy, but not too sluttish. With the soft, sweet electropop instrumentation and production, the contrast between the sugary and the dark is effective. Its empowering but devastating, and it perfectly reflects the experience of growing into your own body, realising that everyone has a perception of how you present yourself, and realising it will never feel like it’s enough.

Now, I don’t think anything about the album is weak, but personally I think the first half of the album is stronger. But, at the same time, Bad Friend hit me unexpectedly hard. It’s the feeling of having too many commitments, having too much to deal with and neglecting your friends. Whether its work, university assignments, or mental health; the guilt of leaving your friends behind is a universal one, and Sawayama’s vocals express it. She’s remorseful, she’s disappointed, and we feel it in in the completely minimalist hook and confessional lyrics. It’s definitely an album highlight.

Still from the video for STFU, what a QUEEN!

Fuck this World (interlude) is probably my least favourite song my only complaint is that it’s just too short. Nevertheless, It’s snappy and angry, and it’s all about climate anxiety. It’s glittery in production, and I only wish Sawayama let go a little bit – sounded less restrained. Her vocals are perfect, but a little too perfect, it’s probably the mix. Too even. Maybe some rougher production would have stood out in the album, but it would have been fun to hear.

Who’s Gonna Save You Now and Tokyo Love Hotel are loud, campy and sentimental, dripping with the cheese you crave from a pop album. The guitars in Save You are intense, loud, and the audience chants remind you of the incredible performer Sawayama really is. It also makes me VERY bitter that I won’t get to see her in May, as planned. The vocal belt in the middle of the song is very unexpected, but executed perfectly, and it’s Rina at her strongest. She’s a performer at heart, and the vocals and atmosphere prove it. Tokyo Love Hotel is a subtle, nuanced, shimmery track wearing the hat of an Ariana Grande song, but the lyrics present Sawayama’s frustration towards the exploitation of tourist culture in Tokyo, with people viewing the city as a theme park for drinking, partying, and casual sex. It’s dripping in misplaced nostalgia, upset, and it has a gorgeous melody.

Chosen Family is the song I wished the album closed with. Nevertheless, it’s a stunning ballad which feels like a love letter to the queer community, as she sings about finding those people who fully accept and embrace you for who you are. It’s a song we need right now. It’s a song that means a lot to a lot of people, myself included. But, I couldn’t imagine Snakeskin going anywhere else on the album other than the end. It’s fast, it’s haunting, it’s triumphant, and before even looking at the tracklist, it’s apparent that it’s building to the climax of the album. The album ends with the words of Sawayama’s mother,  speaking in Japanese about her experience of turning sixty, and her own epiphany of self-love, worth, and becoming the true version of yourself. It is a lovely touch, and a fitting way to finish an album all about identity and growth.

I adore Rina Sawayama. I am a little bit biased. But, it’s objectively an incredible album, and absolutely the highlight of her career so far; releasing an album full of perfectly executed risks is not a simple feat. She has proved herself to be a pop powerhouse, leading the incoming electropopmetal takeover that I’m predicting for this decade. I look forward to seeing her perform in September, and I’m already excited to see what she does next.

Listen to Sawayama on Spotify:

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