Hozier 2: Praise Harder
For about six months, between the fall of 2014 and spring of 2015, Andrew Hozier-Byrne was an inescapable presence. He stormed the scene with 2013 single “Take Me to Church,” alongside a music video which quickly went viral. His accompanying debut album, Hozier, was released to critical acclaim from indie and mainstream music publications alike. His unique blend of blues-tinged, gospel-infused indie rock helped set him apart from his contemporaries. He seemed poised to be “The Next Big Thing.” And then… that was it. His popularity plateaued, and we heard less and less from him over the years that followed. After a while, it looked as though Hozier might go the way of Gotye, doomed to resurface in a decade or so on a VH1 production of “I Love the 2010s.” But finally, after months of song snippets and teasers on social media, he’s returned with his sophomore effort, Wasteland, Baby!.
Hozier’s debut made various nods to his influences, including an Otis Rush cover, but never as blatantly as he does on Wasteland, Baby!. Take the first track, “Nina Cries Power,” as an example. He’s described this track as “a thank you note to the spirit of protest.” The refrain of “(protest singer) cried power!” pervades every inch of the song, getting more and more grating as it goes on. The list of musicians he shouts-out is far too long to be listed here, but it essentially includes every musician from the 20th Century who has ever written a protest song. Then, as modest as he can, Hozier slips himself into the mix. Ironically, while he’s crooning about singers who’ve made profound impacts on society with their songs, he’s not actually saying anything truly substantial about the state of our society.
Regardless of the quality of his songs, it would be a downright lie to deny that Hozier possesses some serious vocal talent. His voice is so powerful that it’s easy to get lost in the timbre and completely lose focus on his words. This works to his benefit immensely, especially when he’s belting out the lyrics of track five, “Nobody”: “You know it’s twelve-o’clock in Soho, baby / it’s gin o’clock where I wake up, I don’t know.”
Goofy lyrics aside, “Nobody” is actually one of the more engaging tracks on the album. It starts with a funky drum break and is soon accompanied by some “Little Wing” influenced guitar phrases. When the chorus hits, it really hits. The whirling “oooohs” buried in the mix work as the perfect backdrop for his robust vocalizations. Again, Hozier doesn’t stray too far from the “Church” formula, but he also proves why it’s such a winning combination.
Track eight, “Shrike,” is definitely a song worth checking out. A stripped down ballad comprised of a thudding piano and clean acoustic guitar arpeggiations is set to the beat of a subtle stomp which moves things along quite fluidly. His voice is the real star here (as it is on every other song). What really sets this track apart from the rest is how he lets his accent come out. One of the most endearing qualities of Hozier as a person is how he so confidently embraces his identity as an Irishman, and while this occasionally bubbles up in his songs, he could still benefit as a musician by staying true to his heritage.
Hozier really deserves some credit; there’s no mistaking a Hozier song for anyone else’s, but at the same time, it’s easy to mistake a Hozier song with another Hozier song. His formula was laid bare on this album: dynamic vocals soaked in reverb, sparse yet bombastic percussion, incessant crescendos, complex guitar work, electric organs and the occasional church choir in the chorus. While most of the qualities listed are conventionally noted as hallmarks of a great song, they lose their impact when employed on nearly every track of an album. Andrew Hozier-Byrne seems like a genuinely interesting and insightful guy, which makes it all the more disappointing when the primary takeaway message from his new album is:
“Hey guys, remember ‘Take Me to Church?’ Well, here’s an hour worth of songs that sound kind of like that!” This album is certainly not terrible, but it is ultimately forgettable. In some minds, this is an even more disappointing result.