Album Review: Hozier- ‘Wasteland, Baby!’

Irish singer-songwriter offers a soulful, blues-rock extravaganza emblazoned with rich, gold-tinged poeticism

Andrew Hozier-Byrne’s salient poeticism first caused an ethereal storm within the music industry in 2013 following the release of debut EP ‘Take Me To Church’, the title-track of which became a religious-damning sensation. A year later, his self-titled debut record stormed into the charts across the world, establishing the folk-rock singer-songwriter as one of music’s most integral prospects. Following a lengthy break, Hozier’s latest album is an enriched commentary of political unrest, social relationships and emotional disparity.

Ever since Hozier released the highly-praised video to “Take Me To Church”, which acted as an immense critique of Russia’s anti-homosexuality stance, the County Wicklow musician has been labeled an important social commentator. The track that signaled his return to music, “Nina Cried Power”, is a tribute to the protest era of the past, referencing icons including Nina Simone, Curtis Mayfield and Billie Holliday. Soaring vocals and a shuffling drum beat establishes the piece as a single of undoubtable quality, embedded in the very heart of gospel music with the additional presence of soul legend Mavis Staples. Released shortly after the vote to approve an amendment to the Irish constitution allowing abortion, “Nina Cried Power” showcases the importance of action over recognition. Without action, Hozier cries that true hardships will never waver. In an age of consistent uncertainty, the album’s curtain-raiser is an unadulterated message of defiance, hitting out at the rising political apathy around the world today.

Laden with rich poeticism, the raw and purposeful “Be” is a highlight on the record. A chugging blues-rock song commentating on refugees, nuclear warfare and governmental crises, the troubadour maintains an exhilarating hold to the single, which is brimming and probing with insurgent guitars and confidence from beginning to end. Hozier’s global commentary is constricted to domestic exasperation on “Dinner & Diatribes”, a barn-storming foot-tapping thriller narrating the crushing tedium of social obligations. Its obsessive groove is concocted via a flickering guitar line and simplistic drum beat which demands a response from its listener. Pushing the spotlight onto the feeling of relief that comes from leaving a social function of sincere boredom, it is tracks like this that make you realise that the five-year wait for a new record was worth it.

Hozier’s lyrical romanticism is ever-prevalent across the new record. A slow-dance wonder with gold-tinted vocals, “Almost (Sweet Music)” is the musical equivalent to whispering sweet nothings into a lover’s ear. The smooth guitar line and syncopated handclap rhythm resonates with the Irish singer-songwriter’s scintillatingly sincere vocals. Lyrically, the track acts as a true jazz education, almost a love letter to the distinguished genre, paying homage to some of the greatest jazz musicians ever to have lived and referencing works by Duke Ellington and Chet Baker amongst others. Dark and purposeful with rich, gravelled vocals, “As It Was” is an intriguing prospect encased in mystery, detailing the reunion with a lover, whilst a classical accompaniment and enrapturing finger-picked guitars cut through the purest of silences.

A steadily meandering offering, “Movement” is guided predominantly by an ominous, underlying organ arrangement before wildly cascading into an explosive and immersive soul-rock experience. A tribute to dancing and influenced by the likes of LCD Soundsystem, Hozier’s strikingly haunting vocal performance soars to heights only seen previously on breakthrough single “Take Me To Church”. An ode to the freedom and flow of limbs and bodies, the singer-songwriter compares his lover’s movements with the innate beauty of the natural world which is a breathtaking success.

Like all modern sceptics, Hozier’s acute awareness of the fallible nature of relationships has been bolstered by his growing maturity. Despite its omnipresent percussion rattle, “Nobody” is a blues-based surprise containing a newfound confidence. Its incandescent swagger alongside the vocal and drum coordination projects a jam-like experience throughout the single, whilst lyrics ‘We could have less to worry about, honey, I won’t lie to you / But everything I do, I’ve had no love like your love’, narrate the limitations of love between flawed beings. A seedy story of seduction, “Talk” highlights the power of lust on the modern psyche, with lyrics including ‘I won’t deny I’ve got in my mind now / All the things I would do’. In spite of the track’s delightfully woven guitar, the single fails to stand out amongst a crowd of similarly powerful offering from the Irish impresario. On “Would That I”, Hozier takes his fight to the listeners, vocally attacking the chorus and injecting a uniquely raw power into every syllable. Thematically, he characterises past romances and emotions as a sheltering forest of trees in which a jealous lover eventually burns down. The narrative bleakness is forgiven by the heart and depth to his vocals, an integral aspect of his artistry.

A laughable take on the fleeting nature of life, “No Plan” is a message of seduction making even the toughest of heart’s weak at the knees. The development of its illustriously compulsive guitar line is a blissful prospect to hear unravel, whilst lyrics ‘How big the hourglass, how deep the sand’ underline the need to live each day to its fullest extent. “To Noise Making (Sing)” is a soulful tribute to American music of times gone by. Its collaborative, gospel heart is a lifting ode to the relationship between love and music, but contextually if fails to breathe new life into Hozier’s sound. The issue is even more clear-cut on “Sunlight”, a flailing gospel and blues crossover track containing a formulaically repetitive chorus that would only ever please your nan or the weak-willed and easily-pleased listeners of Radio 2.

With such a vast array of rich, textured arrangements, ‘Wasteland, Baby!’ is surprisingly at its best when stripped to its bare bones. A masterpiece of narrative songwriting, “Shrike” is a lilting Celtic ballad detailing the sadness that comes with the regret of not appreciating a lost relationship. The soothing arrangement of stings, guitar and vocals relaxes the listener to the very core for what is an intimate and honest farewell to a relationship. The emotional backdrop of the album closer and title track supplements Hozier as an artist substantial talent. Fragile and stripped-bare yet emblazoned with vivacious imagery, the softly serene acoustic folk-tinged finale displays a delicate comparison between a post-apocalyptic world and the protection of a newly-kindled romance.

Contrary to most opinions, the five-year gap between Hozier’s debut and sophomore record has dispersed the overwhelming expectations that immediately congregated following the success of “Take Me To Church”. ‘Wasteland, Baby!’ is both a defiant message against current global discomfort and also a glowing tribute to music of times gone by. Now undoubtedly one of the best lyricists in modern music, the old-fashioned troubadour’s gold-tinged vocals reach a preposterously perfect height, enriched with warmth and husking appetite which alongside the diversified percussion, creates a sensational recipe of success. A poetic masterpiece, ‘Wasteland, Baby!’ is a rollercoaster of emotion, signalling the dawn of a new icon.

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