When Hurray For The Riff Raff—the folk-punk project led by Alynda Segarra—released The Navigator in 2017, it became the band’s biggest and best record yet. The album received voluminous critical acclaim for its extraordinary blend of genres like salsa, pop, folk, and punk seamlessly, while interweaving stories of Segarra’s Puerto Rican roots in the Bronx and calling attention to environmental and social issues tied to Latinx culture.
Now, five long years later, Hurray For The Riff Raff is back with Life On Earth. Overall, it’s gorgeous and captivating, with infectious, pop-driven tracks. But while The Navigator felt like an open door into Segarra’s soul, with powerful, awe-inspiring songs—both lyrically and melodically—this latest release doesn’t quite conjure the same emotions. Still, Life On Earth shows off Segarra’s wondrous songcraft, demonstrating how much they’ve evolved as a musician since founding Hurray For The Riff Raff in 2007.
Life On Earth introduces a new indie-pop aesthetic to Hurray For The Riff Raff’s sound, a subdued vibe that announces itself with opening track “Wolves,” where synths blend with soft twinkling piano. The song takes a pared down approach, letting Segarra’s voice shine without the synths taking over, as they sing about uprooting lives. “You gotta run babe, you know how to run,” they warn; it’s both a personal statement about being a wayward teen and an expression of the album’s theme of nature and the dangers that come when a sanctuary is threatened.
That theme—of the value of nomadic tendencies—is also explored in “Nightqueen,” a stripped down piano-and-synth ballad, where Segarra sings, “So tired of running in a pack, I left my home I can’t turn back / So tired of running in these escapades, they got me livin’ up on Esplanade.” Though both are sonically similar, “Nightqueen” is the standout, the synths creating a starry-night atmosphere with a magical, stunning touch.
But those subdued moments are eclipsed with “Pierced Arrows.” It has DNA of LCD Soundsystem and Arcade Fire, with a dancy, bouncier sound. It’s a catchy standout among the 11 tracks, one that leaves you craving more of Hurray For The Riff Raff’s alt-dance pop slant. It’s also a rare moment where Segarra lets their guard down, tackling the universally relatable experience of not wanting to be reminded of a relationship gone wrong when the wound of heartbreak is still fresh.
The other highs on Life On Earth come from songs where Segarra pinpoints the strengths in their voice. “Pointed At The Sun” may be the most straightforward indie rock-type song on the record, but choosing to keep the synths subtle in the background while Segarra’s voice matches the fervor of the guitar does wonders for it. It also feels more lyrically vulnerable than some of Hurray For The Riff Raff’s other material, with Segarra speaking about metaphorically beating themself up for their flaws: “I’m just a loaded gun, I know I’m not the only one. Pointed straight at the sun, I know I’m not the only one. And I crucify myself…”
“Rhododendron,” co-written with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, directly tackles the nature-focused theme of the record (which, according to Segarra, is about “finding rebellion in plant life”). The song has a style evoking The Velvet Underground—a bit more punk than the previous three tracks—and features Segarra pleading with the listener to not turn their back on the mainland, instead asking for spiritual guidance with lyrics that allude to displacement and the destruction of nature (“Everything I have is gone, and I don’t know what it’ll take to carry on”). It sonically feels the closest to Hurray For The Riff Raff’s earlier punk-infused work, while still fitting in well with the new poppier disposition.
The album thrives in its eclecticism, following “Rhododendron” with “Jupiter’s Dance,” a simple and shining number with synths, drum loops, and kalimba adding a sunny, tropical flair to it. In the liner notes, Segarra writes that the song is about “being prodded and fetishized. Breaking free from any boxes that once contained [them]” and “a song asking for blessings for children in ICE facilities, for those crossing borders and making long journeys to save their lives.” The juxtaposition between a light, airy melody with such heavy meaning works in Segarra’s favor, making this track feel like a thesis for the record: Joy and pain can coexist.
While some of the best moments on Life On Earth come when Segarra puts the focus on their voice and words, a few of the new experimental aspects don’t quite work as well. “Precious Cargo,” a song inspired by Segarra’s findings after visiting ICE facilities in Louisiana in 2019 through local activist groups affiliated with Freedom for Immigrants, stumbles in this regard. The lyrical sentiment is powerful, but musically, it doesn’t pack the same punch as many of their previous activism-focused songs, like The Navigator’s “Pa’lante.”
Overall, Life On Earth has plenty of strong music that shows how much Segarra’s artistry has evolved. But unlike The Navigator, a record so cohesive that every song is equally impressive, Life On Earth’s weaknesses are heightened by the mismatch between its incredible tracks and the ones that are simple credible.