In 2013, Irish musician Andrew Hozier–Byrne, known as Hozier, released his single “Take Me to Church” as part of his debut EP of the same name. At the time, Hozier was a struggling musician, writing and recording his music in the attic of his parent's home. Originally available as a free online download, this single went on to be a massive international success. Contributing to the single’s popularity was its music video featuring a relationship between two men and the bigotry that they face. Paired with religious terminology, this soulful ballad reflects Hozier's frustration with the Catholic Church and broader societal institutions that shame sexuality. Despite its contentious nature, the song tied with the Imagine Dragons’ "Radioactive" for the longest–running number–one song on Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart and was certified five times platinum in the US. “Take Me to Church” is as musically significant as it is culturally significant.
Following this international success, Hozier released his self–titled album in 2014 featuring his famous single, along with other hits like “Cherry Wine” and “Work Song.” After the release of this first album, Hozier remained fairly idle for four years. Unlike musicians like Frank Ocean who fuel anticipation and buzz for their album drops during times of hiatus, Hozier quietly released his EP Nina Cried Power in 2018 with little marketing or press coverage. Yet among devoted fans and music critics, the EP received overwhelmingly positive feedback. The songs on the EP contributed to his latest album, Wasteland, Baby! released on March 1 of this year. Similarly, for this release, Hozier let his musical talent do the talking.
On March 6, Hozier charmingly sang for New York commuters at the Rockefeller Center Subway Station with just his guitar and rich vocals. This impromptu performance posted on Twitter and Instagram went viral, not unlike his first Youtube video, demonstrating that Hozier’s power lies in his musical talent. Days after this stunt, Wasteland, Baby! is currently number one on the Billboard 200 Album chart—and for good reason.
Opening with the single Nina Cried Power (feat. Mavis Staples), Hozier does not shy away from addressing political themes with this classic protest song. Referencing Nina Simone, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, and several others, Hozier pays tribute to inspiring artists of the 20th century. The song features one of these legends, Mavis Staples, an activist and gospel singer whose soulful vocals pair well with Hozier’s. With this album, Hozier is clearly returning to the politically–fueled messages that made “Take Me to Church” so successful. On “To Noise Making (Sing)” Hozier recycles the religious themes of “Take Me to Church” with the aid of a gospel choir. However, this proves to be less successful, as the song lacks substance. The song “Be” repeats the same mistake. It’s a watered–down version of his hit–song as he sings of a lover full of sin.
“Shrike” is a slowed–down, folksy song that shows Hozier’s new depth and maturity. The lyrics are complex, almost disturbing, as he calls himself “the shrike to your sharp and glorious thorn,” (a shrike is a bird that impales its prey on thorns). The darkness of this song is a sharp contrast to the lighter love songs “Almost (Sweet Music),” “Movement” and “No Plan.” Together the three successive tracks are rather nondescript, but slow and folksy, full of hand claps that create a feel–good coffee house vibe.
“Dinner & Diatribes” and “Would That I,” build up the album’s strength. Both songs feature Hozier’s powerful and passionate vocals. Honest and raw on these tracks, Hozier sings of a new love in the former and a lost one in the latter.
The last song, “Wasteland, Baby!” is the album's most intriguing. In a slowed tempo, Hozier compares falling in love with a destructive, apocalyptic event. Listening to the softness of his voice and the lyrics of his song, he’s not necessarily negative, but rather sees love as a new beginning, even as it brings an end to an old way of life. Hozier is searching for joy in a moment that’s uncharted and scary. On this track, Hozier demonstrates that he’s at his best when he’s exploring and not trying to reference the sounds that made him so famous.
Overall, Hozier’s vocals on the album are impeccable and consistent, perfect for his exploration of folk, soul and rock. The themes of the album are at times conflicting, bouncing between seriousness and lightheartedness as Hozier grapples with balancing the old with the new. You won’t find another “Take Me to Church,” on this album, but Hozier is starting to explore deeper and further. It will be interesting to hear where he goes next.