“Change is constant. The world is in a continual state of flux. It is a stream of ever-mutating, emergent patterns.” So reads the synopsis for Emergent Strategy, a book about “radical self-help, society-help, and planet-help” by the Detroit-based social justice facilitator, healer, and doula adrienne maree brown. “Rather than steel ourselves against such change, this book invites us to feel, map, assess, and learn from the swirling patterns around us in order to better understand and influence them as they happen. This is a resolutely materialist ‘spirituality’ based equally on science and science fiction, a visionary incantation to transform that which ultimately transforms us.”
Alynda Segarra cites brown as one of several key influences shaping Life On Earth, their first album as Hurray For The Riff Raff in five years. Also in the mix: British big-tent punk revolutionaries the Clash, Canadian new age icon Beverly Glenn-Copeland, and the bellowing, genre-flouting Puerto Rican pop superstar Bad Bunny. As implied by its title and its eclectic, geographically stratified guiding lights, this is a globally minded album in many senses. In partnership with producer Brad Cook, who has worked on similarly ambitious genre melds for the likes of Bon Iver and Indigo de Souza, Hurray For The Riff Raff’s Latin-tinged folk-rock foundation has expanded to include hard-charging alternative rock, electro-organic pop, even flashes of reggaeton. Segarra calls it “nature punk” — music about surviving and thriving within a worldwide meltdown, constructed by melting down sounds from around the world.
Segarra’s 2017 level-up The Navigator began with a mantra about growing up in the Bronx: “Livin’ in the city/ Well it’s hard, it’s hard, it’s hard.” This record centers on another simple, profound phrase, one that expands the scope significantly: “Life on Earth is long/ I might not meet you there.” Segarra has described Life On Earth‘s title track — a stretched-out, minimal ballad at the center of the album — as “a psalm to all earthly beings” and “a letter regarding the suffering of humankind which effects all on this planet.” Over droning organ, piano, and funereal jazz horns worthy of Segarra’s adopted hometown New Orleans, they evoke the vastness of this planet, its timeline, and its people. The lyrics draw our focus to the sun in the West, to the sky in the trees, to “galaxies of song and prayer” — but also to floods and earthquakes and “the girl in a cage with the moon in her eye.”
Segarra has further sharpened their ability to convey big ideas and stir complex emotions with the most basic turns of phrase. Often one or two lines contain whole worlds. On “Wolves,” the album’s synth-strewn opener, “It’s not safe at home anymore!” gives way to “You gotta run, babe, you know how to run!” The passionate rocker “Pointed At The Sun” climaxes with Segarra lamenting, “And I crucify myself!” — a destructive pattern they’re aiming to leave behind. On the bustling, brassy grand finale “Saga,” Segarra reflects on Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh. The song turns on the line, “I don’t want this to be the saga of my life/ I just want to be free,” yet its final refrain settles for resolve in the absence of resolution: “Nobody believed me!”
Most of those lyrics are sung like arena-filling rallying cries worthy of Florence Welch, but throughout Life On Earth Segarra also toys with speak-singing that resurfaces that old question about whether Bob Dylan was a rapper. On “Precious Cargo,” in a dispassionate cadence that reminds me of Damon Albarn on Gorillaz’s “Rhinestone Eyes,” they outline a heartbreaking story of immigrants swept up into detention centers. In keeping with the holistic philosophy underlining the album, it’s one of several songs throughout Life On Earth addressing humanitarian struggles that really can’t be untangled from our shared ecological crisis. Ditto the briskly rumbling lead single “Rhododendron,” cowritten with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, which builds to an urgent command delivered with a twinge of sass: “Don’t turn your back on the mainland!”
Per Segarra, that line is about acknowledging “the colonizer inside us all,” fixing your own toxic behaviors, and adapting to whatever environment you’ve been presented with. That call to evolve animates so much of the album, and it runs far deeper than Segarra’s words. Life On Earth‘s sonic backdrop is fluid yet unmistakable no matter what form it takes. Even at their most synthetic, these tracks come across as earthy and alive — an extension of their environment. Even at their smallest and quietest, they feel huge. Life On Earth gets at a lot of heady ideas, and Segarra has unpacked them at length in the album’s supplemental materials. But it never feels like Hurray For The Riff Raff are subjecting you to a polemic. Somehow, they’re streamlining all those complex thoughts and feelings into anthems without reducing them to empty slogans. It may not be enough to save the world, but it at least has me excited about the future of this band.
Life On Earth is out 2/18 on Nonesuch.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The final chapter of Beach House’s Once Twice Melody
• Alice Glass’ debut solo album PREY//IV
• Swami John Reis’ debut solo album Ride The Wild Night
• The star-studded tribute album Ocean Child: Songs Of Yoko Ono
• Sally Shapiro’s Sad Cities
• Immolation’s Acts Of God
• Big K.R.I.T.’s Digital Roses Don’t Die
• Black Dresses’ Forget Your Own Face
• The wide release of Lavender Country’s Blackberry Rose
• Metronomy’s Small World
• Matt Pike’s self-titled debut as Pike Vs. The Automaton
• White Lies’ As I Try Not To Fall Apart
• Shout Out Louds’ House
• Shovels & Rope’s Manticore
• Gregor Barnett’s Don’t Go Throwing Roses In My Grave
• Sarah Shook & The Disarmers’ Nightroamer
• Methyl Ethel’s Are You Haunted?
• Oliver Tree’s Cowboy Tears
• Big Nothing’s Dog Hours
• Del McCoury’s Almost Proud
• Khruangbin & Leon Bridges’ Texas Moon EP
• Blue Hawaii’s My Bestfriend’s House EP
• Tame Impala’ The Slow Rush deluxe box set
• Circle Jerks’ Wild In The Streets deluxe edition