Review: “SAWAYAMA” sees Rina Sawayama closing in on pop perfection


When I first heard lead single “STFU!”, its fine-tuned blend of nu-metal and pop instantly reminded me of Poppy’s genre-bending I Disagree that dropped earlier this year. So I began prepping myself for another addition to the long-line of increasing experimental pop records over the past couple of years. Yet what we got instead was a debut album that is a celebration of pop music from the early 2000s in all its lawless glory.

Initially wowing critics and pop enthusiasts with her impressive homages to pop trends of years-to-decades past, the electronic and dance-infused sounds of her stellar debut EP – Rina made the project a forward-thinking record that was unafraid to draw from older inspirations. So it’s exciting to hear the London based singer builds upon this foundation even further on SAWAYAMA.

Listeners that are familiar with her past work will find similar qualities in songs like “XS” and “Paradisin'”; as they channel everything about pop music post-Y2K boom, from the aesthetics down to the attitude. The former is a VERY Britney Spears inspired song, Rina even emulates her drawn-out spoken delivery that injects “XS” with an overabundance the sass. The occasional rock guitar passages are also a delight, leaving the track with a zealous edge. The latter is then a bubblegum pop tune that would be the perfect soundtrack for the all-girl sleepover parties from earlier in that decade. There’s even a little sax solo by the end to top it all off. The tongue-in-cheek performances of both songs elevate them as wonderful reminders of the past while standing strong on their own unique merits.

Alongside the aforementioned “STFU!”, “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?” and opening track “Dynasty” all take cues from the early 2000s as well, but instead of chart-topping pop stars, Rina borrows from nu-metal bands like Evanescence. “Dynasty” serves as confident introduction to Rina Sawayama’s brand of chameleon-like pop. The blazing guitars are essentially ripped from the early Evanescence catalog, while the gusto in her performance just blew me away before the album even began.

The same can’t really be said for “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?” however. It’s an arena-rock song that fails to really justify its use of crowd chants and concert-like atmosphere. Falling in the lower end of the tracklist, the album up to that point has this calculative touch to it despite the periodic anarchy throughout, which makes the song feel messy and out-of-place. It doesn’t help that “Save U Now” also has the weakest chorus on the record.

On the flip side, “Bad Friend” has the best chorus on here and is also my favourite song off SAWAYAMA. Singing about reconnecting with a friend she left behind, Rina’s performance has this hint of remorse but ultimately celebrates the history of friendship between them. Its 80s vibe could have easily fit in on Carly Rae Jepsen’s past two albums, which makes sense given that producer Kyle Shearer did work with Carly in the past. Still, I can’t emphasise enough how heartbreaking yet empowering this song is.

“Tokyo Love Hotel” is another standout, sounding like a 1989 Taylor Swift cut, think “Style” or “Wildest Dreams”. Criticising people’s fetishisation of Japan, the song is probably the most straightforward pop tune on here. From its bright production qualities to Rina’s effortless vocals, its an inoffensive track that powered by an earworm of a chorus.

The callbacks stop there though, as the remaining songs “Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys)” and “Akasaka Sad” are much more forward-thinking than anything else on SAWAYAMA. “Comme” is a grimy, bass-heavy dance tune that flaunts the charisma in Rina’s vocal deliveries; while “Akasaka Sad” has a very PC Music and Charli XCX flair to it, with its unconventional electronic beat and auto-tune heavy styling. Both tracks didn’t blow me away but their inclusion on the record are refreshing ones as it provides a nice break from the time capsule album that Rina provides with.

Finally, closing track “Snakeskin” is another forward-thinking track however I’m not a fan of it. It reminds me of BLACKPINK’s “Kill This Love” where too many aesthetically different elements are crammed into one song, leaving it without a solid hold for listeners to grab onto. The ballad-like start that leads into the bombastic chorus and then its electronic breakdown leaves me with tonal whiplash. It’s the only other misfire on an otherwise immaculate record.


Final Verdict

SAWAYAMA wears its influences very heavily on its sleeves, but instead of being a mere imitator, Rina Sawayama injects enough of her own-self into each track, leaving listeners with a throwback record that feels familiar yet fresh. Juggling a plethora of genres, the album is ambitious and manages to nearly perfectly nail its tightrope balancing act.

Its easily one of my favourite projects of 2020 so far.

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Based in Melbourne and Malaysia. Jensen is a part-time journalist and full-time music fan.

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