Hurray for the Riff Raff: Life on Earth – Utterly compelling

Alynda Segarra’s mostly excellent eighth album addresses issues close to home

Life on Earth
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Artist: Hurray for the Riff Raff
Genre: Alternative
Label: Nonesuch

Before Alynda Segarra (she/they), who records under the moniker Hurray for the Riff Raff, went into the studio to record the mostly excellent Life on Earth, their eighth album, they had decided on a new plan of action. Instead of trying to save the world, they would try to save themselves.

Segarra told Rolling Stone that following 2017’s The Navigator, a homage to their Puerto Rican heritage, they had launched into an artist-activist crusade during the first half of the Trump administration with benefit shows for asylum seekers and fielding questions such as “How do you have hope?” in interviews.

“I didn’t feel big enough to do that any more,” they told the magazine. It was “coming from a place of feeling like who I am is not enough, that I’ve got to amp it up somehow,” they add. “I don’t want to get into that activist world that turns into saviour shit. It was more like, ‘I need to save myself’.”

And so the 11 tracks on Life on Earth address issues closer to home, but inspired by books such as Adrienne Maree Brown's "radical self-help, society-help and planet-help" text Emergent Strategy, suffice it to say they are not contemplating a Jamie Oliver cooking course.

Segarra also hooked up with noted indie producer Brad Cook, who helped create a new soundscape. Surprisingly, for someone so rooted in Americana tradition, it is dominated by synths, with ne'er a fiddle or banjo to be heard. But the mood is warm and embracing, coloured by subtle use of brass, songs with insistent melodies and an impressive assurance. There is the odd misstep – Pierced Arrows is a bit too Blondie – and long-term fans may initially wince, for instance, at the rockist tone of opener Wolves.

However, the core of this album is utterly compelling. The title track, a gorgeous chamber folk meditation on the natural world, its joys and fears, is the centrepiece, with personal reflections such as the fiery Patti Smith-influenced self-critical Pointed at the Sun, the glistening Jupiter’s Dance, Nightqueen’s aching vulnerability, the salty memories of Rosemary Tears and the revisiting of sexual abuse in Saga, which closes with the forlorn “Nobody believed me” echoing out. There is also one overtly political song, Precious Cargo, which strongly evokes the plight of the refugee.

With Life on Earth, Segarra has taken a major step forward. Aside from the tacky cover shot, this is an album of real depth and assurance. Cook’s deft production wisely showcases her voice, and she responds with a performance laced with sensitivity and conviction.