Album Review: Hurray For The Riff Raff – The Past Is Still Alive

[Nonesuch; 2024]

Born of Puerto Rican heritage and raised in the Bronx, Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff came of age with an appreciation for numerous Latino musicians and writers, among them Rodriguez, Julia de Burgos, and Chicago-based street gang turned human-rights organization the Young Lords, who prompted the galvanic Nuyorican Movement, including the indispensable Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Words and Feelings. They were additionally inspired by the Dust-Bowl lineage of John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie, the punk poetics of Patti Smith, and the swagger of hip-hop. Considering their varied background, it’s no surprise that Segarra’s brand of Americana is uniquely eclectic – fueled by global Romanticism, respect for cultural diversity, and a fierce sense of justice.

With 2017’s Navigator, Segarra championed the outsider and underdog while invoking the realities of economic, gender, and ethnic bias, as well as the horrors of nationalism and ongoing hegemony. Hook-filled, the album unfurled with politically charged depictions of antiheroes striving (and often failing) to toe the Anglo-Christian-capitalist line.

With 2022’s Life on Earth, Segarra revisited earlier folk stylings (notably 2010’s Young Blood Blues and 2014’s Small Town Heroes) but with a savvier perspective. Moved by adrienne marie brown’s Emergent Strategy, which explicated innovative approaches to dealing with the constancy of change, and, perhaps, The 1619 Project (curated by Nikole Hannah-Jones), which centralized Black contributions to American history, Segarra strove to reconcile the notions of freedom and commitment. Throughout the set, they explored the difficulty of remaining true to self while participating in relational commitments and communal macro-structures.

With Hurray for the Riff Raff’s latest album, The Past Is Still Alive, Segarra strives to make peace with previous traumas, both personal and historical, and share an understated wisdom. If earlier work showed Segarra studying the cycles of their life, merging their own story with epochal timelines, The Past shows them commenting on suffering, beauty, and the possibility of healing. Their tunesmithery is crystalline, their lyricism freewheeling yet precisely penned, and their voice as evocative yet relaxed as ever.

Opening track “Alibi” is one of Segarra’s catchiest earworms; their voice resonates as cosmopolitan yet vintage, empathic yet indicative of someone who has learned the hard way about setting boundaries. Segarra zooms in on a memory (“marching towards East River Park / you told me your big secret by the FDR”) while considering whether a relationship has a future (“maybe I got something left that is worth a try / but I’m not gonna be your alibi / this time”).

“Hawkmoon”, meanwhile, captures life on the road. The soundscape is crunchy, strummy, straightforward. Segarra plunges into painful recollections (“you’ll never know the way I miss Miss Jonathan / she was beaten in the street and then I never saw her again”). And yet, the song emanates buoyancy, Segarra’s voice accented by a melodic lead guitar part. Segarra can’t answer the mysteries of existence (why are so many born into oppression? What is the origin of greed, selfishness, cruelty?) but can and does exude gratitude for what they’ve survived and the lessons they’ve learned.

“No one will remember us”, Segarra proclaims on the slower-paced “The Colossus of Roads”, pointing to an essential paradox: while our supreme moments of enlivenment may well ripple in the collective unconscious, the self that experienced them is doomed. No trace of identity will remain. “Children forever”, Segarra concludes, conjuring an Edenic vision, how in an alternate world innocence might prevail and hardship might not be a given. “Snake Plant (The Past Is Still Alive)” again shows Segarra delivering adrenalized lyrics via a breezy vocal. As with “Hawkmoon”, the song’s vision is pain-laden: “there’s a war on the people / what don’t you understand?” Overall, though, the piece is melodically and rhythmically uplifting.

“Dynamo” is an irresistible love song, a tribute to a wild spirit and adventurer. On one hand, Segarra has said goodbye; on the other, the two are forever connected, the singer referring to the song’s subject as “her baby” and speaking of their relationship in the present tense. Segarra takes a less equanimous tone on “The World is a Dangerous Place”, addressing disappointment, how love is forced to negotiate with circumstances, how idealism succumbs to reality. And yet, “there’s been a change in the weather”, they add, revealing a fundamental optimism. Guest singer Conor Oberst’s voice is an ideal complement to Segarra’s.

With The Past Is Still Alive, Segarra accesses memories as vividly as ever; as we know, however, memory is not factual; “what happened” is a reconstruction, and the artist collages the past through a wiser, somewhat removed, and more panoramic lens. When they sing, on closer “Ogallala”, “I was in love with my American footprint”, they capture the energetic core of the project: America, ever-morphing, is an elaborate map of lives, as is history itself. America is Segarra’s landscape, one they’ve fought hard to claim. Friends and heroes, alive and dead, travel alongside Segarra, tumbling toward the future, whatever happens next.