ALBUM REVIEW: SAWAYAMA is an adventurous, nostalgia-driven, genre-defying album - and Rina's best work to date.
In an interview attached to the release of SAWAYAMA on Apple Music, Rina Sawayama said she was about halfway done with the album when she realized that it was ‘definitely about family’. Indeed, the album has a strong thematic through-line about family, both blood and chosen, that helps to tie the entire genre-defining affair together.
The album is all over the place sonically. That sounds like a read, but in this context it actually works. Rina plays around with dance pop, nü-metal and much more across these thirteen tracks, but the album still has a sense of sick cohesion. This is due mainly to an incredibly personal approach to lyric-writing that makes each song feel like just another facet of Rina’s own personality.
Additionally, even the sonic aspects aren’t as fully random as they may at first appear. There is a distinct sense of idealized nostalgia here. Rina clearly is inspired by the pop and rock acts of the early-to-mid 2000’s, but the album is less a recreation of those sounds as much as an homage to our collective memories of them. This album doesn’t actually sound like Britney Spears or Evanescence or N.E.R.D. Instead, it idealizes and modernizes those sounds in a way that still triggers those nostalgic feelings – without losing the sense of modernism and that the actual music of that era lost long ago.
- Dynasty – Rina called this song the ‘thesis’ of the album, and for good reason. The music is a loving, if obvious, tribute to Evanescence, but the lyrics are a much more intimate and genuine examination of emotional turmoil than that famously-angsty band ever achieved.
- XS – This song is so fucking fun. The contrast of the searing guitar riff against the bubblegummy pop of the rest of the song is startling and thrilling and perfect.
- STFU! – As a lead single, this song was the perfect choice. It is bolder and badder than anything Rina had released up to that point, and it remains an album highlight. The ‘hahahahahAAAAA’ vocal riff after the first chorus is a truly legendary moment.
- Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys) – This song is probably the most straightforward pop on the entire album, but that’s not a bad thing. It may not be the go-to track for demonstrating Rina’s songwriting prowess, but there is a 100% chance that this song will be lighting up the dancefloors of gay clubs around the world for years to come.
- Akasaka Sad – Sonically, this might be the most out-there song on the album. It makes sense to follow up Comme des Garçons with something more experimental, and Akasaka Sad knocks it out of the park. The production is absolutely nuts, but it doesn’t stop the chorus from being catchy as hell anyway.
- Paradisin’ – It’s hard to tell if this is the greatest summer-drive bop of all time or the most insidious parody of summer-bops ever. Either way, it’s a lot of fun. It runs through its three minutes at breakneck speed, with only the briefest interlude for a quick sax solo and some artificial crowd-screaming noises. Its wacky and goofy, but so what?
- Love Me 4 Me – Kicking this song off with a quote from infamous fracking-baron RuPaul Charles is one of those things that maybe seemed like a better idea on paper. Still a bop though.
- Bad Friend – This possibly the most earnest song on the album, but sadly also one of the less exciting. It’s not at all a bad song, though. The melody is lovely, and the production is nice… if the album has a track that could be an actual radio hit, it’s this one. It’s not a skip (frankly, there are no skips on this album), but by the time the choir-led bridge hits, it’s just a bit too cheese for my taste.
- Fuck this World (Interlude) – Don’t let the ‘interlude’ tag on this one fool you, this is a full song, and quite a good one. Rina doesn’t let up on the earnestness with this one, but the production here is just so lush and luxurious, it doesn’t feel corny at all.
- Who’s Gonna Save U Now? – This song is a hard-left turn back into the wild eccentricities of the first half of the album, and it is a welcome return after the three previous tracks. In the context of the album, it makes sense to place those three more serious and thematic tracks in the middle of the album, but it’s great to get back to the fun. This song also features some of Rina’s best vocals on the whole album.
- Tokyo Love Hotel – Here is the best example on the album of Rina’s personal and emotional songwriting being used to incredible effect. The song is toe-tapping, with a melody and production that is reminiscent of Carly Rae Jepson’s best work. Far from an empty bop, though, the lyrics contain some of the most introspective thoughts of the entire album. The perfect balance of those elements makes this an album highlight.
- Chosen Family – There is no doubt that for many of Rina’s fans, especially her LGBTQIA+ fans, listening to this song will be an emotional experience. This tribute to the idea of being able to choose one’s own family will resonate with so many. This may not be the most experimental-sounding song on the album, but producer Danny L Harle does some of his best work creating a power-ballad moment that is simultaneously rousing and just vaguely tongue-in-cheek.
- Snakeskin – It is an odd choice to use this song to close the album rather than, say, ‘Chosen Family’, but it is a high note to end on, nevertheless. This track features some of the most heart-pounding production, built around an instrumental that is as anthemic and orchestral as it is grimy and electronic. The song features samples from Beethoven and the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack, so there’s really no way it was ever going to be anything less than epic.
SAWAYAMA isn’t a perfect album (I’m still giving that RuPaul quote some side eye), but it is a damn good one. Rina manages to be more emotionally raw while simultaneously having more fun than she ever has before. It is rare for a debut album to show this much musical and lyrical maturity. With this, Rina Sawayama has effortlessly placed herself in the ranks of pop music’s best.
You can stream SAWAYAMA at the links below, and definitely tell me which tracks were your favorites in the comments.