The first thing I have to say about the new Hurray For the Riff Raff album is that visuals are startlingly weird. On the cover Alynda looks like an extra from some 80s Io-fi swamp movie, and one of the videos released cast them as a nature punk, with a mullet, cavorting around drenched in blood. You can see why some of the below the line comments on the recent Guardian interview accused the artist of the crime of pretentious hipsterdom. Personally, I love their offbeat style. Alynda is unafraid of transformation, their artistry has vision, ideas, personality and above all something much rarer in this modern, homogenised music industry: individuality.
Alynda has also signalled from the start that these last two albums have been a shift away from the Americana genre of the early HFTRR work. Some may be disappointed in that switch of sound but it makes total sense. Who would want to be associated with the musical history of America after the last few years? On this album Alynda’s music is informed by ideas about being a citizen of Earth, a unified globalised, diverse world not confined by the ideas of past patriotic glory or something as arbitrary as land borders.
Opening song Wolves then tells us ‘It’s not safe at home anymore / you gotta run’ – the history of humanity is fear, escape, flight from terror, hope of a better future in some other place. Alynda brings that vulnerability and tension to the vocals, the beat ominous behind them.
Pierced Arrows goes inward, their own personal struggles exposed. Again the music has a snarling kind of undercurrent which is reflected in the lyrics about breaking down, breaking apart so when the chorus hits and they sing ‘Pierced arrows from the sky/ Fall Through me every time/I’m not afraid to cry’, it’s cathartic, like an attack can’t hurt you if you keep moving forward, run towards the blue.
Pointed At the Sun continues the theme of loneliness, isolation from the people around you. When the song cracks into ‘I crucify myself’ you feel the pain, the suffering, the howl that caused a visceral reaction in the studio.
Then the strange and hypnotic Rhododendron celebrating all the weirdness of the natural world, the survivors, the things that grow anyway, the violence too, the strange evolution of everything. The refrain of ‘Don’t turn your back on the mainland’ and ‘Everything I had is gone’ could be about anything really, her own story or that of a refugee. Leaving the past behind isn’t easy for anyone: ‘I don’t know what it’ll take to carry on.’
Jupiter’s Dance is probably the most futuristic sounding song and the soft electronic textures work as a kind of interlude, another moment of wondering about how to reconcile yourself with the world around you.
The central refrain and concern of the album is the title track. Unlike The Navigator this isn’t a concept album but the song Life on Earth works as the central beating heart (it could have been a nice opening and closing refrain too). Life on Earth is long, full of despair, and yet beauty is everywhere.
Despair and darkness tinges nightqueen. Isolation and loss of connection have affected the whole world during the pandemic. If the world can’t find me/ I leave it all behind me. Poet and novelist Ocean Vuong adds a spoken word interlude about the state of the world, which feels so sad and true.
On Precious Cargo the intention is noble: a story of trying to get a child across the border to a safer life, attacking the inhumanity of ICE detention centres and the dehumanising way the media covers such stories. However I found the style of spoken word, almost rap, just didn’t work for me. The real voices of the refugees did hit home though when they said ‘this song is my life’ I did feel the truth in what was being said – I just wished for a different arrangement to convey it.
The album ends with the epic song Saga detailing childhood trauma, contemplating how to endure the brutal realities of life. When I first heard it I sobbed. Like Palante the song contains a call for understanding, a wish to be heard, believed, full of hope for freedom, for healing.
The final soundscapes on Kin are the chime of a bell, birdsong, a reminder that even as the ship sinks music will be playing. The world is dying along with the rest of us, all we can do is find the brief gorgeousness in what’s left. Life on Earth is a precious, beautiful gift. Look up.