Hurray for the Riff Raff - The Past is Still Alive album review: a startlingly personal new chapter

Alynda Segarra’s back story is known for being picaresque. Before starting to record as Hurray for the Riff Raff, they were a teenage punk who escaped New York to hop freight trains across America, and ended up as a New Orleans street musician.

Plenty to write about in song, you’d think, but the highlights of their earlier work were cover versions of John Lennon, Joni Mitchell and Gillian Welch, and more recently they have had bigger things on their mind.

The Navigator, from 2017, was a concept album about the Puerto Rican immigrant experience that sampled the political poet Pedro Pietri and is currently being developed as a stage show. Their last album, Life on Earth, added electronic elements to their folk rock sound and offered some consideration to the fate of the human species.

This album, their ninth, feels startlingly personal in comparison. It ends with a series of voicemail messages from their father, who died a month before they started recording, and sounds like a marvellous man. On Hourglass, they confess to feelings of insecurity in spite of the trappings of talent and success: “I always feel like a dirty kid/I used to eat out of the garbage/I know I should probably get over it.”

Snake Plant (The Past is Still Alive) depicts their adventuresome days in a series of vivid snapshots over casually strummed electric guitar and a discrete saxophone: “I play my song for the barrel of freaks/And we go shoplifting when it's time to eat/They don't even really know my name/I'm so happy that we escaped from where we came.”

While they diversified the band sound on the last couple of albums, this one sees a tightening and refining of the classic Americana style. Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes pops up to offer his blessing with a few lines on the lilting ballad The World is Dangerous.

They often sound optimistic, a buoyancy reflected in some of their most energetic, finest tunes. Alibi opens the album with upbeat folk rock and the line: “You don’t have to die if you don’t wanna die/You could take it all back in the nick of time.” Hawkmoon has a clipped, punkier feel and again makes her travelling days sound thrilling with the help of some remarkably garish imagery: “Dildo waving on a car antenna/I could have ridden shotgun forever.”

Segarra has been more ambitious in the past, but it feels great finally to be permitted to join them on the road.