A minute into Rina Sawayama’s self-titled debut album is all it takes for the question ‘What genre is this?’ to cross your mind. Is this Gothic pop rock? Indie pop with bite? Is it electronic dance music? Is it Alternative as it’s strangely listed on Apple Music? SAWAYAMA is all of these things and more.
That opener I mentioned, ‘Dynasty’ has this Evanescence style operatic metal sound which merges straight into the grinding 00s Britney Spears pop sound of ‘XS’ without batting an eyelid. Then it’s over to Sleigh Bells’ screeching and twitching production on ‘STFU!’ before heading back over the Atlantic to the full europop banger ‘Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys)’. That’s all in the opening four songs. This album is exhausting; in the best kind of way.
‘XS’ in particular has fast become one of my highlights of 2020 so far, whether it will become her breakout ‘moment’ is something I can only hope for at this point. It takes until ‘Bad Friend’ for the massive energy to dissipate slightly, the run of tracks before it going to J-Pop via 90s New Jack Swing and back again, but it stands as one of the most bombastic pop moments here. Along with ‘Tokyo Love Hotel’ it’s where Rina finds herself much more in the same place of Synth driven pop as the likes of CHVRCHES and Dua Lipa. I think these songs are brilliant moments on the album, but the main appeal of this record comes from the more unexpected left field moments. I don’t think SAWAYAMA has the same mass appeal as records from those acts, but I think that’s why it stands out so much.
Lyrically I think the album truly shines, Rina’s personal approach to song-writing works perfectly with the small details she leaves across every track. The way she eloquently describes the combination of both Japanese and British culture is brilliant and it’s seen on nearly all of the songs here. The specificity of ‘singing along to Carly’ on Bad Friend sticks out for me, SAWAYAMA may sound otherworldly at times, but it’s a deeply personal and grounded album lyrically.
‘Chosen Family’ is the biggest moment of self reflection, ‘We don’t need to be related to relate’ and the sentiment is more than welcome on a record like this. For me though it grinds the album to a halt just before the end and really sticks out as a sore thumb here. It’s just about the wrong side of sentimental for me. Thankfully the bass of Snakeskin comes in to close out the album on a really high note.
I could write about every one of these 13 tracks here in so much depth, I never even mentioned the bonkers key change on highlight ‘Who’s Gonna Save You Now’, but I’d be missing the most impressive aspect of SAWAYAMA as an album. Everything is so in your face immediate, the hooks are right there, the production really prominent in the mix and it makes for a thrilling first listen. Surely this is what a debut album should be about, forcing you to look up and notice an emerging talent through their own personal stories, but being immediately sold on their place as a new star. Rina Sawayama isn’t a future pop superstar, on SAWAYAMA she is one.
Words by Sam Atkins