“I am asking you to, as bell hooks says, FALL IN LOVE WITH JUSTICE,” Segarra wrote in a searing open letter to the folk community in 2015. Life on Earth exudes a prayer-like love for humanity, as Segarra’s depiction of resilience extends to memories sparked by “a terrible news week” on the penultimate “Saga.” “I was a kid, I was lonely,” they sing. “He pushed me down on the concrete/Oh, I can’t speak.” Trauma, once lodged, works to silence us from within, the song suggests; breaking free is a triumph, emboldening each note of “Saga.” That’s especially true of its final moments, where Segarra incants, heartbreakingly: “Nobody believed me.” “I’ll just make it through this week,” they sing, “And I’ll get out alive.” Segarra follows in the lineage of Fiona Apple, Sharon Van Etten, and other modern songwriters who have processed abusive relationships in daring songs. The brassy conviction and even biting humor of “Saga,” and Life on Earth, is proof of regaining control.
Segarra, who is 34, has said they spent much of their 20s feeling like they were born in the wrong era, wishing and demanding more of folk musicians who too often remained silent on issues, particularly racial injustice. But within our seasons of uprising, and an increasingly inclusive and critical culture, Segarra has found more to relate to. Where The Navigator’s “Pa’lante” included a 1969 recording of the late poet Pedro Pietri’s Nuyorican epic “Puerto Rican Obituary,” Life on Earth samples the voice of a contemporary, poet Ocean Vuong, whose books and interviews form treasured survival guides, and whose work also narrates the immigrant struggle in the United States. Appearing midway through “Nightqueen,” Vuong’s words, originally recorded for the “On Being” podcast, give Life on Earth its title; when his tearful voice enters the frame, it’s chilling. “As a species, as life on Earth, we’ve been dying for millennia,” Vuong says. “But I don’t think energy dies. It just transforms.” Vuong’s voice glides in over droning synths and the gentle buzz of horns, and feels as adaptive and generative as the plant life that inspires Segarra. This is yet another connection, another way forward.
Among its powers, topical music can make us feel with unforgettable intensity what we already essentially know about the time in which we live, reorganizing our priorities, clarifying the questions we ask of the world and ourselves. Life on Earth leaves questions lingering inside of you. Segarra’s melodies, some so beautiful that they seem to have existed forever, make them stay.
Buy: Rough Trade