The singer’s ambitious third studio album is the stuff of legends
Ever had your heart broken and thought, “This is hell?” So has Hozier. But unlike most of us, he’s gone on to write a sweeping, ambitious 16-track record about the experience, inspired by Dante’s Inferno, and laced with mythological references, a reverence for nature and a stubborn hope. This is what the Irish singer-songwriter does – repackage the universal into the magically untouchable. And his third studio album is the best yet.
It’s not every songwriter who can hat-tip to Dante, Jonathan Swift, Greek deities and the Wexford Rebellion in the same record without becoming pretentious. But whilst Unreal Unearth is complex and well-informed, it never sacrifices accessibility. Lead single ‘Eat Your Young’, is a sultry, jazzy rework of Swift’s satirical essay, A Modest Proposal, a commentary on the gluttony of war, and a reference to Dante’s third circle of hell. It also wouldn’t be out of place on drivetime radio. Hozier’s writing is precise and unmistakable, and despite its confronting subject matter, the track is easily listenable.
Elsewhere on the record we have ‘Francesca’, a brutal ballad of enormous proportions, named for a canto in Inferno. ‘Unknown/Nth’ references Dante’s ninth circle, whilst string-heavy instrumental ‘Son Of Nyx’ is named after the Greek goddess and personification of the night. All of these open avenues of interest for the listener to pursue, but at its core, Unreal Unearth is that most understandable of things – a breakup album.
On his third record, Hozier descends through memories of his relationship like he’s venturing down into his own personal hell, each level revealing some new challenge with which to contend. “It ain’t the being alone… It’s more the being unknown,” he sings on ‘Unknown/Nth’. “I hear he touches your hand and then you fly away together/If I had his job you would live forever,” he mourns on folk pop offering ‘Anything But’. Orchestral ballad ‘Abstract’ sees him stuck on a memory of himself and his ex standing over an almost-dead creature in the road. “I’m afraid we’ll always be/Trapped inside an abstract from a moment in my life,” he tells her. The song’s alternate title, ‘Psychopomp’, is named for a kind of spirit in Greek mythology whose responsibility is to escort the newly deceased to the afterlife. The love is over, but even as the singer is led away, he refuses to regret it. “I’m still glad I met you,” he sings.
The comfort Hozier takes in the natural world across his discography is felt throughout Unreal Unearth (the album’s cover art sees the singer literally buried in the ground with only his smiling mouth visible). His journey as Dante takes him deep into the earth, only to reveal, as in nature, hope, and the possibility of new life. Cryptically titled Sinatra-esque love song ‘To Someone From A Warm Climate (Uiscefhuaraithe)’ (the song’s title is loosely translatable from Irish Gaelic to ‘water-cooled’) suggests that Hozier’s heart is repairable. ‘All Things End’ reminds us that the love is not wasted by nature having fallen apart. “And just knowing/That everything will end/Should not change our plans/When we begin again,” sings Hozier.
The message reaches us over and over again. We hear it in the excellent indie pop duet ‘Damage Gets Done’ with Brandi Carlile, in which two lovers reflect on a formative relationship and decide, on balance, that it was a positive thing. We hear it in folky soft rock track ‘First Time’, in which Hozier chronicles a love affair from start to finish, and resolves that there in parting there is both pain and a reclaiming of self. In ‘First Time’, as in pretty much every track, his vocal performance is astonishing. Album closer ‘First Light’ sees Hozier once again emulate Dante as he is led out of hell and into the daylight, to look up at the sky as if for the first time. It’s a hugely cinematic ending to the record, the singer backed by a chorus of strings and voices.
But the highlight of the album is its fifth track, ‘I, Carrion’. Amongst fantastic power ballads and huge orchestral instrumentals, the quiet, confessional song sears. Even in Hozier’s restrained vocal performance – one that renders him almost unrecognizable from the man that sang ‘Take Me To Church’ – there’s a desperate ferocity. It’s almost enough to make a person actually want to read Dante.