Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Alynda Segarra’s Past Is Still Alive: Poem-Songs Of Grief For Our Slow Show Apocalypse


To say a folk record is filled with narrative concepts and literary world-building might just be the fancy way to say that the words were so vivid that they crushed you under the weight of their epic emotion. In this season of over-listening and so many things to love, you just wanted one more album to destroy you with a soggy ugly cry, but now it is happening again and again. Such is the prolific unkempt bent of ragged American folk music during this slow show apocalypse. 

It is only 6am, and I am weeping into my first cup of coffee in hopes that someone somewhere will start their day with the new Hurray For The Riffraff record called “The Past Is Still Alive,” and that the set’s threadbare hope and relentless grief will give to that strange somebody else: such a catharsis as this. In their aching sense of their poetic song lineage, the album opens with a momentary nod to Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend,” and Alynda Segarra’s word-turning Nuyorican-Beat debts to Bob Dylan, Eileen Myles, and Pedro Pietri drop-in-and-out-of-lines that stitch themselves to the listener’s soul with the superglue of forever human grit and hunger. 

The “songwriter as poet” was a big idea and book topic during previous folk revivals, but has seemed perhaps too simplistic since. But then Dylan grabbed the greatest literary award on earth, and we are talking about singer poets again. Just recently, a musician and a scholar clarified with the “poetic song verse” concept to always situate the lyrical poetics in their comprehensive ineffable sonic package. Alynda Segarra is a master class in these sung poetic bursts. With listen-after-listen to this new joint, it was stunning-stanza-after-stunning-stanza that would slay me in my shoes, take my breath away, and rip my beating heart right out of its chest. So many words on this record are ready made for graffiti, for postcards, for tattoos, and yes, for social media sharing. It already feels like these lyrics are scars on the ancestor-tree-trunks of our lives. 

Why do these characters suddenly know me better than I know myself and why I am thinking about my dead father too -- and why I am crying again, but I am also dancing too. Maybe it is because I left Detroit in ways that Segarra left New York and those same Woody Guthrie post-Kerouac hobo yearnings define my life too, as do all the compassionate weirdos and nomadic drifts and cultic solidarity in our marginal niches of defiance and desire. 

I can imagine other poet songwriters have tried to write a record this timeless for these times (actually have a few that I would keep in the same revered company as this), but there’s gentle but ceaseless gravity to these themes and to these lines, whereas this record joins its enclave of myth and legend already great, as if it was already written and already here, as coherent of a prayer to address our collective incoherence as I can dream or imagine. 

Maybe climate grief and familial grief are the same thing? Maybe we were really born to watch our nation dissolve and our world burn with such wide-eyed vulnerable open-armed intensity? Maybe when my counselor acknowledged that my music fandom was a highly reliable and recommended form of self-care, he intuitively understood how a record like this will help me cope with things that I otherwise couldn’t manage?

As our counterculture pasts and fates will have it, I remember encountering the younger Segarra as the fabulously-fringe traveler-character who populates these songs, when I first saw them sing at a rural southern DIY queer music festival around 20 years ago. As they would periodically pierce the indie music veil and as critics would sing their praises, I would whisper to myself: I remember them; I knew about them back when; I really like them. I would always say that I need to see them live, but then, I would just miss them. I finally caught their hometown set at the 2022 New Orleans JazzFest, when they were out supporting the “LIFE ON EARTH” album. 

Over the decades, I would learn one or more acclaimed tracks from each new Hurray For The Riff Raff drop every few years, but I never gave their catalog the deep-dive or hours-long headphone rabbit-hole that it deserves and requires. Until now. Now I am falling in, all in. 

If I am to believe all the buzz in the handful of days since “The Past Is Still Alive” dropped everywhere you get your music, I am not the only person who has temporarily ditched all their other artists and listening agendas to bask full-time in the powerful magnetic storytelling and loving queer protest art of Alynda Segarra and Hurray For The Riff Raff. 



27 February 2024

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