Album of the Week: Hurray for the Riff Raff's 'The Past is Still Alive'

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Don’t get me wrong. Alynda Segarra’s 2022 album Life on Earth was very good. Five years in the making, it served as a reasonable follow-up to their breakthrough 2017 album The Navigator. But I am happy to report that Hurray for the Riff Raff’s new album, The Past is Still Alive, is even better – arguably the most fully realized and consistent album the 36-year-old Segarra has done to date.

Segarra fronts Hurray for the Riff Raff, an ever-changing collection of collaborators capable of providing whatever soundscape Segarra’s pointed and potent songs require. The recent constant has been producer Brad Cook on bass, but there is plenty of other help on the newest release, including some lovely harmonizing from S. G. Goodman and Connor Oberst on a couple of tracks.

The Past is Still Alive is no less lyrically ambitious than any of Segarra’s recent work, but there is a certain musical comfort in a return to the country-tinged road songs that made The Navigator so effective. Not that this is a country album – Segarra is far too eclectic an artist to be tied to any one genre – but guitarists Meg Duffy and Mike Mogis are constantly dropping country inflections into songs like “Hawkmoon” and “Buffalo.” 

Why Hurray for the Riff Raff's latest album is must-listen

Those songs, along with album opener “Alibi,” set the tone for what follows. On the surface, this is upbeat folk rock that seems to offer reassurance. The album begins by telling us “You don’t have to die if you don’t want to die – you can take it all back in the nick of time…”

But Segarra’s songs are usually about the journey required to reach that state – as she notes on “Hawkmoon,” “becoming the kind of girl they warned me about.” Segarra has always written songs about their own personal journey – from identifying their gender identity to placing their cultural foundation in a vast American landscape to figuring out how to be an artist. Their latest album may be the most personal exploration yet, mostly written in the wake of their father’s death a year ago.

That personal exposure is most intense in the swampy “Snake Plant,” which sits right in the center of the album and begins “Snake plants, Florida water, I only wanted ever be a good daughter,” before taking the listener on a tour of Segarra’s career trajectory – at times harrowing but ultimately triumphant. “I play my song for the barrel of freaks – And we go shoplifting when it’s time to eat” may be the signature line for early Hurray for the Riff Raff.

Segarra can be angry and she can be tender, and she is often both, as on “Colossus of Roads,” a love song about the collapse of America, inspired by the devastating Colorado Springs Club Q attacks in late 2022. There’s something so beautiful and so sad about “Let’s go paint the oil cans – Write our names on a grain of sand – No one will remember us – Like I will remember us – Meet me down in the Castro – We’ll pretend it’s 1985 – Before we were a twinkle in our great grandfather’s eyes.”

On the aching duet with Connor Oberst, “The World is Dangerous,” she begins “Your dreams are not your dreams – They’re only visions of what you need – You’re not the person you thought you’d be – But I still love you,” before concluding that dreaming is actually the only way to conquer a dangerous world. Its lullaby melody belies the profound message of both sadness and hope hiding in plain sight.

Segarra concludes The Past is Still Alive with literal proof of concept in the form of one minute of recorded messages from her late father. The track, called “Kiko Forever,” is a funny little sign-off, bursting with life. Such spoken word excursions can often be misguided amid a wash of music and song. Here, it is just about perfect.  The country is angry and nature may be even angrier, but “You don’t have to die if you don’t want to die.”

Hurray for the Riff Raff is now touring in support of The Past is Still Alive, playing up the east coast of the States this week before spreading out to the rest of the country this Spring. Then they hit Europe in May before launching a Summer tour in support of Norah Jones.

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