Reckoning with the past is never easy and can sometimes be excruciating – Rina Sawayama knows that as well as anyone, and her debut album explores life through lived experience and harsh truths. She’s lived in London most of her life, moving there from Japan at an early age and then having to deal with the long-lasting pain of her parents separating. Coming to terms with experiencing such a setback at a formative age – as well as the myriad knock-on effects it had on her life – is something she explores with startling precision on SAWAYAMA, an album that’s rooted in themes of identity, perception and family.
“The pain in my vein is hereditary” she sings on its opening track ‘Dynasty’, one of several songs on the record that examine generational trauma and her biological and chosen family ties; raising the curtain on a new era for Sawayama, it’s a track full of drama and tension that makes room for a euphoric bridge driven by soaring vocal runs in tandem with a well-placed guitar solo. ‘Akasaka Sad’ provides the flipside to this, finding Sawayama haunted by her past and struggling to come to terms with it, travelling thousands of miles in a futile attempt to escape it. It’s harrowing stuff, one of the record’s darkest moments that’s still dressed up in accessible pop garb. If you’ve heard her 2018 mini-album RINA, it’s no surprise that she’s very good at that, and her debut full-length offers further proof.
As befits its personal subject matter, the 13-track offering is something of a creative reset for Sawayama as she focuses on the true opening statement of her musical career. Sure, she takes cues from RINA (among them, continuing her working relationship with writer and producer Clarence Clarity), but her debut makes it sound like a warm-up, revelling in its diversity of sound. Bruising nu-metal-tinged riffs and sugary-sweet pop rub shoulders on the declamatory ‘STFU!’, a mix that just shouldn’t work in theory but is executed perfectly, with Sawayama blasting back at the microaggressions she’s had to endure over the years as a Japanese person living in London and sounding suitably fired up as she does so.
It’s the sort of stylistic curveball that made it an ideal choice as a trial balloon for the then-unannounced album late last year, and it’s flanked on the record by the muscular groove of ‘XS’ – which lampoons the failures of capitalism – and ‘Comme des garçons (Like the Boys)’, which zeroes in on male privilege while also possessing enough swagger for Sawayama to stake her claim as an artist to watch: if they can do it, so can she, and that’s the sort of confidence needed to pull off an album as audacious as this.
Big pop debuts need singles, and she could have gone with just about anything to preview the album with. Case in point, ‘Paradisin’’, one of the record’s particular highlights, which details how Sawayama spent a good chunk of her teens acting out (choice lines: “I went and messed up again / Went against everything you said / Summer of drinking in Trafalgar Square”) as a way to bring some thrills into her life amid her mother’s heavy-handed parenting. (MSN Messenger hacking and best-friend blackmailing abound.) It’s an appropriately energetic track lifted to even greater heights by a saxophone solo and key change in quick succession. ‘Who’s Gonna Save U Now?’ reveals her stadium-sized ambitions, a razor-edged kiss-off to a former friend that opens the record’s final third with aplomb, swiftly followed by the uplift and cathartic musical release of ‘Tokyo Love Hotel’, which mines similar sentiment to ‘STFU!’ while also being the closest the album gets to a straightforward love song.
It also features an absolute monster of a chorus, yet is arguably outdone in that department by penultimate track ‘Chosen Family’, which tugs at the heartstrings as the sole ballad on the album as its electro-pop backing provides a vehicle for Sawayama’s paean to self-acceptance and belonging (“We don’t have to be related to relate / We don’t have to share genes or a surname”) that will no doubt resonate with a lot of people.
As a Japanese immigrant in London, having to rebuild her life on the other side of the world from what she knew, she’s had to carve out her own niche, and setting those struggles to music has helped form the clarity of purpose that can be heard throughout SAWAYAMA, which concludes with the deliciously weird experimentation of ‘Snakeskin’, the sort of track that can not only get away with a dubstep breakdown but make it work. It’s a fitting last hurrah on an album which thrills from start to finish, made by someone who’s keenly interested in blurring musical and cultural boundaries while exorcising some personal demons along the way. Her debut may recount her dealing with the trauma of her past, but Rina Sawayama sounds like the future.