Album Review: Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA (2020)

Rina Sawayama’s debut full-length album has a Metacritic score of 89, and is one of the most talked about albums of the year. It’s been on my must-listen list since it came out, and I finally got the push to listen this week, as I realised that I’ve been frequently listening to two songs from the album, so a few more must be worth it.

The first one of these is a new discovery for me, through a song radio on Spotify. It’s the album opener, ‘Dynasty’, which I’ve heard described as a crossover between Evanescence and Britney Spears. I wouldn’t fully agree with that – ‘XS’ is more obvious with these inspirations – but the haunting opening vocals and the guitar solo near the end is very gothic nu-metal, and the exaggerated grandeur of the song does feel very Amy Lee. The comparisons are not an insult to Rina at all, but as she proves time and time again on this album, she has her own sound.

‘STFU!’ is a surprising song. Even though I have seen Rina perform live – she was the opening artist on Charli XCX’s headline tour at the end of last year – I really wasn’t anticipating a metal-inspired album. It feels very 2000s though – the metallic sounds layering her soft vocals (okay, before the guitars came back). It’s another sign that the music of the 2020s is really just a nostalgic return to a time when music was “better” – SAWAYAMA joins ‘R. Y. C’, ‘Future Nostalgia’ and even ‘Chromatica’ in having a clear background in throwbacks.

Song four on the album, ‘Comme Des Garcons (Like The Boys)’ is the second song I have been listening to, ever since it’s release back in January. Although I prefer the Brabo remix containing Pabllo Vittar, the original is just as good, and a clear change from the rest of the first half of the album. The message of the song is about Rina finding her own way to be strong (and that of femininity’s strength), and not in a toxic masculine way, which she satirises in the music video to the track. When we’re let out again, the remix belongs in every gay bar across the world, though.

Another positive, dancefloor-filling banger is the track in the centre of the album, ‘Love Me 4 Me’. Definitely an homage to the 2000s dance scene, it promotes self-love (if that wasn’t obvious from the title). I was shuffling across my bed when this song came on, it could be my favourite which I’ve discovered from this first-listen to the full album! It’s contrasted with the more melancholic ‘Bad Friend’, which looks into her own insecurities and weaknesses, and follows ‘LM4M’ on the album. However, her vocals on this one make this go from being another nostalgic tune to being fresh and modern – she sounds like she could be on the PC Music label with this one.

‘Who’s Gonna Save U Now?’ already feels like a classic. The crowd cheering her name at the start of the song made me oddly think of Billy Joel – before the guitar solo made my mind switch to Bruce Springsteen. Regardless of the potential inspirations, this is another song which has no qualms in destroying the constraints of genre. This song has everything from church bells to organs, and I’m actually blown away by how much is actually going on here – yet it all fits together really well.

The album concludes on a more muted note. ‘Tokyo Love Hotel’ is an ode to her Japanese roots, while ‘Chosen Family’ gives off pop queen ballad vibes. This is one of my favourites (in an album apparently full of them) and, to me, it’s about how friends who have been with you for a long time are family to you. ‘Snakeskin’ finishes the album, and is a darker sound. ‘SAWAYAMA’ could be the soundtrack to a very glamorous horror movie, and this would be the song where the walls have caved in and the protagonist is running for the exit and-

‘SAWAYAMA’ is a very solid album, one with several songs to listen to time and time again. I love how she adapts metal into her music and gives it an edge above everything else that’s out there in the world. Although it didn’t hit the charts on anywhere but Metacritic, it deserves to – if a bigger artist had released this, it would have smashed #1 (although then, an already established artist may not have had the nerve to release something so out-there). And if you get the chance to see her live – take it with both hands.

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