Music is a means of expression, a way for the artist to convey and transfer their own emotions to others. For much of what is considered commercial pop music, this aspect isn’t given all that much consideration beyond base level notions of catchiness or demographic appeal. Even so, among those artists that do aim to have their music embody what they’re feeling, there is a surprising lack of songs that are just pure, unadulterated joy.
Gogol Bordello has always been a group that have nicely balanced broad appeal with exuberant energy and passion. As they first started out in the early 2000’s (I myself followed their rise via the annual Vans’ Warped Tour compilations), they certainly skewed more towards the punk edge of their “gypsy punk” aesthetic, which made for a more straightforward and aggressive sound on their indie label debut, ‘Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike.’
As time went on, however, a change began to come over the group, thematically and tonally. Both the fury underlining “Not a Crime” and the innocuousness of their lighter material (“Start Wearing Purple”) were gradually tempered and molded by a burgeoning sense of genuine worldliness. Popping up amid the likes of ‘Super Taranta’s’ “Harem in Tuscany” and “American Wedding” were songs like “Wonderlust King,” tracks that spoke of a richer spirit behind all the passion and energy. By the time Gogol Bordello moved to a major label for 2010’s ‘Trans-Continental Hustle’ (around the same time that frontman Eugene Hutz moved to Brazil from New York), they were consistently pumping out tracks like “Immigraniada (We Comin’ Rougher)” and “Raise the Knowledge” that saw their signature bombast suffused with what I can only call wisdom.
Not only is ‘Pura Vida Conspiracy’ Gogol Bordello’s wisest album to date, it also turns out to be their most consistently great. The soft opening refrain of “We Rise Again” signals a new appreciation for softer instrumentals; just about every song here ends with a soft wind-down under lyrical summations. There are even some slow jams courtesy of “I Just Realized” and “Hieroglyph,” both of which evoke the romance and warmth of Santana.
This embracing of more deliberate compositions doesn’t get in the way of some rollicking good times: “We Rise Again” bursts out of the gates as a rousing cheer for unity and cooperation. “John the Conqueror (Truth is Always the Same)” too is a blistering rocker that effectively builds off the motif of old-world adages and mythology. That Gogol Bordello can breath new life into these lessons without having it feel pedantic is yet another brilliant aspect of their overarching dynamic. “Borders are scars on face of the planet” is perhaps one of Hutz’ most succinct summations of Gogol Bordello’s international flavor and spirit of inclusivity.
As vocally distinct and eye-catching as Hutz is, Gogol Bordello’s sound really pays tribute to the power of the collective. Every track on ‘Pura Vida Conspiracy’ lends to the notion that the above-pictured band are really a family. Even with the final acoustic ballad, “We Shall Sail,” you can picture all the other group members quietly gathered around to listen to Hutz’ words (the hidden track that follows this gives everyone ample opportunity to break the silence, rest assured). Even on tracks that would seemingly cast Hutz as the chief protagonist, like the bouncy waltz of “Malandrino” and the giddy “Boys Are Back in Town” air of “My Gypsy Auto Pilot,” the richness of the full Gogol Bordello lineup always takes prominence.
With the wisdom that I spoke earlier of comes a certain hint of realism, an understanding that all the rebellious calls to arms that Gogol Bordello came up singing might not actually make all that great a difference in the grand scheme of things. This doesn’t weigh down ‘Pura Vida Conspiracy;’ on the contrary, songs like “Dig Deep Enough” and “Lost Innocent World” take everything in stride, remaining strong in the face of hardships.
Easily my favorite track, “The Other Side of Rainbow” is positively blissful, even as the central metaphor of “the other side of rainbow, it was black & white” spells out the inescapable nature of life’s struggles. What Gogol Bordello take away from this, what ‘Pura Vida Conspiracy’ declares throughout, is that those struggles can never obscure the fact that to live is a gift, and to feel alive with others is the greatest gift.