Hozier Balances Apocalyptic Anxieties With Hopeful Optimism on ‘Wasteland, Baby!’
Irish singer-songwriter Hozier started off on a strong note, beginning with worldwide success of his single “Take Me to Church,” then reaching number one in his homeland with his 2014 self-titled album. His latest effort, “Wasteland, Baby!” is a record that draws from a combination of musical elements that haven’t quite been found together in any widely recognizable artist’s work. Hozier grew up in the Quaker faith, which is hardly a common denomination, and this seems to have spurred a fascination in such tangential interests as gospel music, which makes its way prominently into the new album. It’s an exceptionally balanced and varied, yet undeniably cohesive work, rich in both musical style and lyrical content.
Hozier starts this off with “Nina Cried Power,” a grand, passionate opener with an evangelical quality brought fully home by a guest appearance from Mavis Staples. One thing that immediately stands out is Hozier’s truly unique voice. His accent and delivery are hard to place, which gives him a certain timeless regalness, and colors the music in a hue of his own. “Almost (Sweet Music)” strikes a bit like the calm after the storm, a relatively stripped down and easy number that begins with handclaps and light guitars that recall much of Vampire Weekend’s output, but escalates eventually into the same spheres as its predecessor. Standout track “Movement” takes on a new intimacy, with Hozier singing up close and personal, before exploding into his most passionate howl so far, over haunting organ.
The music assumes an unprecedented festivity with the stylings of “No Plan,” featuring horns and funky bass that serve as an ironic conveyance of chorus lines like, “There is no plan” and “ There will be darkness again.” At this stage, one has to appreciate the record for Hozier’s dynamic range. “Nobody” has some delicious guitar lines that conjure John Frusciante’s trademark licks, but still shaped into a style of Hozier’s own. It’s another special moment, with ethereal vocal harmonies, a hard-hitting breakbeat, whimsical “Whooh” interjections, and plenty else to enjoy. “To Noise Making” is a seamless afterthought, with the same general aesthetic, more of the gospel-tinged proclivities that have featured intermittently thus far, and Hozier managing to come across as impressively catchy upon first listen.
A seedy guitar line forms the basis of “As It Was,” and the freely sparse arrangement around it gives a vaguely Spaghetti Western feel. There’s an intricacy of the guitars here somewhat reminiscent of Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood. The following track “Shrike” finds Hozier, at moments, stepping out of his typical ambiguity, and sounding as blatantly Irish as could be. This happens at the most dramatically voiced lines, and there’s a slight crackling to his voice that makes for a special emotive resonance. The varied guitar references also keep coming, seemingly drawing influence from African slide guitar styles, with Hozier seemingly drawing influence from African slide guitar styles, as he does on various tracks, particularly the delightful meandering “Dinner & Diatribes,” in which the sounds eventually cross worlds fully and end with Celtic melodies. By the point of “Would That I,” the song kit is beginning to get a little old, although hardly, as it was such a unique combination to begin with.
“Talk,” is a instant banger, with a whispery croon, more frivolously winding guitar work, and of course more church-style, impassioned bellowing. As throughout the album, Hozier makes sure to put different spins on his signature sound palette, making the album consistently engaging. On “Sunlight,” the perennial gospel choirs take on a form that harks back to a stain of sixties rock, from an era when prog instincts were budding. The beaming chorus here could easily be one of the record’s most powerful moments. For the final stretch, having switched gracefully between histrionic bleating and cool, composed crooning somewhat regularly, Hozier returns to the latter, and brings things to a gentle close with “Westeland, Baby!”
“Wasteland, Baby!” is an album that stands out for its thoughtful lyrics, which fall loosely into three main categories. For one, there are a number of songs that address aspects of music in general. It’s a fitting occurrence, considering that Hozier’s well-informed musical heritage would make one expect plenty of thought being devoted to the subject. On “Nina Cried Power,” he alludes to such legends as the titular Nina Simone, John Lennon, James Brown, and Bob Dylan. “Almost (Sweet Music)” continues the references to icons, who have apparently affected such modesty in Hozier that he choose to title his own homage to them with the “almost” qualifier. This sort of keeping oneself measuredly apart from the main act is a common feature in Hozier’s music. For instance, “Movement” expresses an appreciation for dance music, but with a rather abstruse reference to the story of “Jonah and the Whale,” in which one body is caught within another that is moving.
Relationship issues also feature prominently on the album. “Nobody” is about two people acknowledging one another’s flaws, while “As It Was” voices something of a reconciliation.”Talk” questions the Provençal ideal of love, while “Would That I” expresses a general awe and simultaneous frustration with the confounding effects and complexities of past romances. The well-balanced, give-and-take forays into romantic issues are paralleled by a disaffection and dread about the world at large, which makes its way into several song, but only in a measured way that never wallows into defeated cynicism. The self-evident “No Plan” takes inspiration from a lecture about the end of the universe through heat death, although this is balanced by the unabashedly optimistic “Sunlight.” Finally, “Wasteland, Baby!” puts a lighthearted spin on doom and gloom, addressing one’s concerns while simultaneously poking a bit of fun of them. Holzier himself has described it as “a love song for the end of the world.”
“Wasteland, Baby!” is a remarkable album for how it couldn’t be created by anyone but Hozier. Moreover, it achieves this distinction without ever seeming forced or gimmicky. By presumably following his natural instincts, Hozier has fallen upon a style truly of his own. Making things better yet is that he satisfies not only in novelty but also in both performance and passion. His latest work is an album that delivers in both variety and consistency, as well as a general quality of music that speaks for itself.
“Wasteland, Baby!” is available March 1 on Apple Music