Album Reviews

Hurray For The Riff Raff – The Past Is Still Alive

(Nonesuch) UK release date: 23 February 2024

Stirring ambition writ large from one of this generation’s best singer-songwriters, with guest spots from Meg Baird and Conor Oberst

Hurray For The Riff Raff - The Past Is Still Alive It’s been 16 years since Alynda Segarra released their first album as Hurray For The Riff Raff, and in that time they’ve developed into one of their generation’s best, if overlooked, singer-songwriters. The Past Is Still Alive is Segarra’s ninth album, and there’s a case to be made that it’s their best album to date.

It’s certainly Segarra’s most personal record. An album that’s been born from personal grief, it was recorded just a month after Segarra’s father died. It’s his voice you hear on the final track Kiko Forever, simply a minute-long collection of his voice messages to Segarra, and the effect, especially after listening to the previous 10 songs, is a powerfully emotional one.

Those songs are classic folk-rock Americana, with nods to the likes of Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch. Alibi is the perfect opener, full of restrained energy and, as always with Segarra’s song, a huge dose of empathy for the outsider. “You don’t have to die if you don’t want to die” they sing to an addict – “I see your track marks poking through your hoodie sleeve” – and it becomes a beautifully uplifting introduction to the album.

There are many musical similarities between Segarra and Katie Crutchfield aka Waxahatchee, which shouldn’t be too surprising given that the two artists share a producer in Brad Cook. Cook adds a rootsy sheen to Segarra’s songs that never sounds dated or as if it’s copying artists from another time. Songs like the rocky Vetifer, with its exhilarating slide guitar, are just as effective as an acoustic ballad such as the lovely, nostaglic glow of Buffalo.

There’s a stirring ambition to Segarra on this album as well. Snakeplant (The Past Is Still Alive) is a big anthem, which begins as an unsentimental look back at their childhood (“I’m so happy that we escaped from where we came”) before skilfully turning into a protest song about the opioid epidemic (“There’s a war on the people, what don’t you understand, there’s Fentanyl in everything”). There are lyrical references to Bob Dylan and Nina Simone songs, and it’s testament to Segarra’s skills as a songwriter that it doesn’t come across as hackneyed, and instead stands shoulder to shoulder next to such names.

Hawkmoon looks back to their days of travelling around America as a teenager, and acts as a tribute to drag queen Miss Jonathan, “the first trans woman I ever met” according to Segarra. It’s a stirring rocky anthem of a song, with lyrics that can shock – “she was beaten in the street, and I never saw her again” – and with references to a “dildo waving on her car antenna”, make you laugh.

There are guest spots from Bright Eyes leader Conor Oberst, who adds guest vocals to the beautiful The World Is Dangerous, while his bandmate Mike Mogis’ pedal-steel weeps all over tracks like Ogallala. Meg Baird also adds fiery guitar to the aforementioned Hawkmoon, but none of the guests ever overshadow Segarra.

It feels like the album they were always born to make, both a personal and touching autobiographical album while also being an articulate state of the nation address. As they sing in Ogallala: “I used to think I was born in the wrong generation, but now I know, I made it right on time to watch the world burn.” As a soundtrack to watching those flames flicker, it doesn’t come much better than The Past Is Still Alive.

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