Acclaimed New Orleans group Hurray for the Riff Raff gets into the groovy on their exceptional Nonesuch debut Life on Earth
With 2017’s The Navigator, Hurray for the Riff Raff expanded their sound beyond their folk and roots origins. Coupled with the thematic leaps Alynda Segarra took lyrically, the result was on the short list of that year’s best albums.
The question of where Segarra would go next took a while to answer, but after almost five full years, their follow-up — Life on Earth — has arrived.
Segarra’s approach on Navigator was to go to a well that rock musicians have dipped into for over 50 years — the concept album built around a character. Instead of Sebastian F. Sorrow, Ziggy Stardust or P!nk, its songs told the story of a Nyuorican street kid named Navita Milagros Negrón, a stand-in for Segarra themselves as they found connection with their own place in the Puerto Rican diaspora and connection to their ancestors within it. Set against a backdrop of an ever-changing and gentrifying city, its political themes grew more heft after the damage done to Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria and by an response afterwards from the Trump administration that could be characterized as indifferent, even hostile.
Artist: Hurray for the Riff Raff
Album: Life on Earth
Label: Nonesuch Records
★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
It took some time for Segarra to decide where they wanted to go with the follow-up record, with the pandemic allowing more time for them to ruminate on it.
Things finally came together when Segarra began working with producer Brad Cook (Waxahatchee, Snail Mail, Hiss Golden Messenger, Bon Iver).
The result is continued exploration of sonic palettes that flowered on Navigator without the artistic conceit of another concept album. There’s no playbill-styled packaging, no theatrical presentation as a costume for the personal moments.
The sonic changes are apparent from the get-go, with the analog synthesizers of album opener “Wolves,” with its lyrical words of warning. If it wasn’t clear from there that Segarra was expanding her musical horizons, the second track leaves no doubt.
“Pierced Arrows” marries LCD Soundsystem-style arty dance rock with a catchy chorus. Segarra may sing “Pierced arrows from the sky/Can’t chase me down to size/I’m not afraid to cry/Can’t hide from turpentine” in the chorus, but the determination in her vocals is anything but grim.
There are moments where, if not full of “happy happy, joy joy”, there are flickers of light. While there may not be resolution, there is resolve.
In a way, Life on Earth is an album about survival as a form of self-care, about keeping connections — with one’s self, with those around them and, yes, severing connections if necessary.
“Saga”, the de facto album closer, was inspired by Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony during the Bret Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings, but it can certainly be read about being in an abusive relationship and being determined to get free and not be defined by being abused.
But unlike Navigator’s anthemic closer “Pa’lante,” Life on Earth ends on a sadly honest note. Segarra repeats “Nobody believed/Nobody believed me” over the outro, the last words sung on the album.
Segarra, even wanting to write about personal topics (like relationships) that they hadn’t in a while, remains concerned about the politics of inhumanity.
“Precious Cargo” came from a man detained by ICE, who they met while volunteering for Freedom For Immigrants. Segarra details his risky journey to migrate and his treatment under detainment by immigration officials.
They step outside to let the man have agency over his own story, as he says in part, I just wanna say they should keep helping people/Because immigrants are suffering/This is the song, it’s my life.”
Life on Earth may have those aforementioned keyboards, but they’re just part of a veritable tasting menu of sounds.
“Pointed at the Sun” a song of frustration at one’s own self-loathing (“And I crucify myself!”) is the most guitar-driven track, mining similar melodic indie turf that Angel Olsen has also done so well with in recent years.
“Rhododendron”, co-written with Jim James of My Morning Jacket, is about finding peace in a world where that piece is more fragile thanks to climate change (“Don’t turn your back on the motherland!”). and inhumanity (“Addicted to the high of violence”).
But the joy in Segarra’s performance and gift for melody keeps it from sounding like “Hurray For the Riff Raff Sings From a Selection of Pamphlets.”
Segarra turns things down on the second half of the album. The intimate “nightqueen”, featuring poet Ocean Vuong is a soundscape portrait of loneliness and isolation.
The title track was originally intended to have more instrumentation, but Segarra wisely decided to turn it into an arresting piano ballad full of beauty with a heart-catching moment of horror (“The girl in the cage/With the moon in her eye”).
“Rosemary Tears” is a low-key torch song of regret over a past relationship, knowing that it would never work no matter how much they wanted it to.
Life on Earth may not be as cohesive as The Navigator, but it builds on that album in interesting ways, packing its share of eclecticism and ideas into 40 minutes. Segarra may not have all the answers, but they remain unafraid of posing the questions.
Even though the instrumentation is much closer to 2022 than the 1940s, Life on Earth is another example of the through line from Woody Guthrie to today. Segarra may have moved on from the acoustic-driven sounds from earlier in their career, but they remain a keenly engaging and empathetic troubador speaking to life during their time.
VIDEO: Hurray for the Riff Raff “Pierced Arrows”