By: Amanda Alvarez
SAWAYAMA is the breath of fresh air that pop music needed.
Rina Sawayama, the up-and-coming Japanese-British artist who debuted in 2017, burst onto the scene with a sound that had been lost to the years of Britney Spears, infusing it with her own personal touch of take-no-shit attitude and shredding guitars. Her debut EP, RINA, left me in awe in its wake. In a pop music scene where almost every artist sings about love, Sawayama decidedly turns away from that. She makes what I like to call theme song music. Any of the tracks on the EP sound like they could accompany the opening or closing of an early 2000’s teen movie à la “Legally Blonde.” The music is fun and uplifting, especially the track “Take Me As I Am,” serving as a power anthem for those who want to go against the status quo and be their truest selves. Her music tackles subjects that might seem too abstract for pop, but she innovates so much with her sound that I’d have been surprised if her lyrics weren’t as incisive as they were.
SAWAYAMA, the songstress’s debut album, has definitely accomplished more than the RINA EP. RINA felt like hanging out with someone for the first few times. You get to see how they’re doing and get a feel for their personality, but you know that there’s more to be revealed as you get closer to them. SAWAYAMA is like getting wine drunk with that friend after a year — the night starts fun, and as it goes on the conversation gets deeper until you finally open up and bare your vulnerabilities to each other.
Sawayama has found her voice and her lyrics are much more intimate than on her debut EP. SAWAYAMA explores lost relationships and convoluted familial ties as she digs into her past. As the album progresses, Sawayama drops the curtain and becomes more intimate and honest with the listener, revealing more of herself that she didn’t in RINA. The entire album is rife with references to her family, like in “Dynasty”, or the sampling of Sonata Pathetique that her mother would play for her in “Snakeskin.” Sawayama explores these relationships by flipping the definition of a dynasty on its head, and continuing to express her desire to break the status quo and get away from her parents’ beliefs in order to break the cycle that they’ve perpetuated. The roaring, almost celebratory track declaring “I’m a dynasty” sounds like it should be positive…until Sawayama subtly hints that she almost killed herself to maintain her sanity.
Her connection to her family is further explored in “Akasaka Sad”, a lilting tune that feels like a mental loop you can’t escape from. She references the Japanese district Akasaka, known for its Shinto shrines, the Suntory Museum of Art, concert venues, and all sorts of retail stores and entertainment. The inescapable sadness she describes is more amplified when you realize what she’s surrounded by. Not only is she in her place of birth, Japan, but she’s flown almost 6000 miles, in a place rife with distractions, to get away from whoever is causing her this pain yet she’s still feeling it. She compares herself to her parents, calling back to “Dynasty” and how badly she wants to break away from their behavior. She’s 28 and confronting the realization that she has to deal with her emotions, and running from them only makes her like her parents. She returns to Japan in “Tokyo Love Hotel”, a love song for the city she never really knew. It’s almost an apology, as if she’s apologizing for every tourist who goes to the city for casual sex or without an actual appreciation for their surroundings. It’s a callout for anyone who sees Japan as a stereotype and claims a love for it when they really don’t have the next clue about where they are. Continuing the thematic relationships with ancestry, “Paradisin’” is a fun song on the album that also explores her and her mother’s relationship, when Sawayama reveals that her mother blackmailed her best friend in order to find out where she is in the middle of her first kiss.
Now, not every song on SAWAYAMA is a reflection on the past or family. The album starts off with an insane amount of energy, guitars slamming into your ears and beautiful production making sudden switches in tone both seamless and extremely pleasing to the ear. “XS” is a true banger, with the vocalizations in the beginning wrapping up “Dynasty” before being interrupted by a truly pleasing guitar riff that declares “I’m here!”. “XS” is a feel-good, I-deserve-it-all piece of badassery that has one of the most fun dances of 2020 to accompany it as well. The guitar shred in “XS” was just a tease for the heaviness that is “STFU!”. Starting with emo screams and metal-inspired guitars, it almost sounds like it doesn’t belong in the album, until the tone shifts into the sugariest, sparkliest sounds as Sawayama lovingly tells the subject to shut the f*** up!
Throughout the record, Sawayama weaves her rock inspirations seamlessly into her sounds, her light voice serving to juxtapose the heaviness of the backing track. “Commes de Garcons (Like the Boys)” drips with confidence as well, with a meaty bassline opener that reminds me of a high-fashion runway show circa ‘96. It’s a pure celebration of the self. It’s similar to “XS” (sans the inherent greed), with an extra dose of feeling yourself.
Sawayama continues the theme of empowerment and speaking your mind in “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?,” a poignant track about finally giving up on an unsavable relationship after trying so hard to do just that. The meaty electronic synths drive the point home, that the other person burned the bridges of their relationship and nothing is left to save them. She explores the other side of this coin in “Bad Friend”, a track where she actively chastises herself for constantly avoiding them and not staying in touch, yet passive-aggressively states “Maybe I overreacted, well maybe you shouldn’t have/God it’s insane how things can change like that”. The ironic, gospel-inspired upbeat tone behind the words “Put your hands up if you’re going to let this go” insinuates that this pattern will continue, because her words don’t imply any sort of change from before despite her admitting her problem. “Love Me 4 Me” continues this chastising, where she tells herself to follow the expectations set for her: maybe then she’ll be loved. “Love Me 4 Me” is an intimate conversation between Sawayama and herself. She wants to start over because “I remind me of me”. She can’t be fixed because she created the problem, she changed herself out of self-hatred to be palatable and as a result her lover can’t help her.
“Chosen Family” does the exact opposite of “Love Me 4 Me.” It’s a celebration of platonic love, of the relationships that Sawayama cultivated and keeps closest to her. It’s sincere and kind, and the quiet backing track only amplifies the intimacy behind asking someone to bare their vulnerabilities and reassuring them that they’re alright with you. It’s the albums’ true tear-jerker of a track because of how genuine she sounds as she tells the subject to “Hand me a pen and I’ll rewrite the pain/When you’re ready, we’ll turn the page together”. It’s almost motherly in that sense, in the way that your mother might say that she wishes she could take your pain away from you. This track being the second to last shows Sawayama’s growth as she breaks the pattern from “Dynasty” and cultivates a chosen family that understands her and who she so blatantly loves.
SAWAYAMA is a stellar debut album. It’s raw, emotional and explores themes that aren’t really seen outside of more underground circles. Sawayama varies her sound with every song, creating unique works that are incredibly distinctive. A lot of modern pop sounds pretty similar, especially with an influx of SZA copies (you know, that one particular way of singing your vowels) and a heavy reliance on electronic music. Sawayama runs away from that, crafting her own particular sound that both perfectly fits into the world of pop while also bringing something completely different and exciting to the table. It’s only been a month since SAWAYAMA came out, and I’m already looking forward to what she brings to the table next.
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