Music Editor Oliver Scoggins reviews Hozier’s third album Unreal Unearth, finding it a mostly successful exploration of new styles for the artist.
Unreal Unearth is the long-awaited return of unlikely star Hozier. 2014 single ‘Take Me To Church’ remains one of the most surprising hits of the last decade – it sits at 29 on the list of Spotify’s most streamed songs. His eponymous debut that it comes from is a strong batch of singer songwriter and pop rock tunes, which have garnered him a fervent fan base. 2019’s Wasteland, Baby! did not offer much of a departure from his debut, and slipped a little in consistency, but still offered some strong song writing on tracks such as ‘Would That I’ and ‘Almost (Sweet Music)’.
Unreal Unearth…gives Hozier room to play around more with his style
Unreal Unearth, clocking in at just over an hour, is Hozier’s longest album yet, and gives him room to play around more with his style. The album pushes the mythology which has always surrounded him further than it has previously been – threads of Dante’s Inferno are dotted throughout the album, as well as references to Nyx and singing in Gaelic. The lyrical content remains strong as ever – lines such as ‘to hold me like water / or Christ, hold me like a knife’ from ‘Who We Are’ or ‘I swam a lake of fire, I’d have walked across the floor of any sea’ from ‘Unknown/Nth’ are the typical emotionally pertinent descriptions for which Hozier is known so well for by now.
The album opens with the two parted ‘De Selby’. Part 1 sounds like a medieval campfire song, and also contains the first use of Irish Gaelic on the album. It explores the connection between darkness, the self and love, and works as a strong opener. Part 2 explores the same themes lyrically, but instead over a sexy, bluesy instrumental, driven by an angular bassline and crisp drumbeat. ‘First Time’ doesn’t prove much of a departure from typical Hozier style – it is a poetic love song, over a fairly standard pop rock instrumental – but is still strong and provides a nice brightness in contrast with the gloom of the opening two tracks.
‘Damage Gets Done’ is a major departure. It is a bouncy indie pop cut almost reminiscent of Tears for Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ – it certainly would not be out of place in the 80s. It acts as the youth’s reply to their political usage by older generations, explored in previous ‘Eat Your Young’ – ‘I know being reckless and young / Is not how the damage gets done’. Although very radio-ready and a lot more typically poppy than much of Hozier’s previous catalogue, it sounds great, and the Brandi Carlile features is definitely a valuable addition. ‘Who We Are’, ‘All Things End’ and ‘Abstract (Psychopomp)’ are all similarly strong tracks, especially the latter. The dramatic piano and strings combo underneath Hozier’s urgent vocals create a beautifully anthemic pop rock song.
These forays into different styles pay off, but album highlight ‘Unknown/Nth’ is Hozier distilled to his essence. Similar to first album tracks such as ‘Like Real People Do’ and ‘Cherry Wine’, it is mostly made up of a gorgeous repeating guitar riff and Hozier’s vocals. The lyrics reflect on a past partner, and how devoted he used to be to them – ‘you were like an angel to me’. He comments that it is not the ‘being alone’ or ’empty home’ that comes with the end of a relationship that makes it so painful – it is ‘more the being unknown’ – losing a person that knows everything about you. The track builds to the cathartic admittance of the love he still harbours for this partner. Despite remaining fairly instrumentally bare, with just the guitar, vocals and a background pad for most of the song, it is gorgeous, and probably the best example of Hozier’s song writing chops on the album.
Despite these highlights, Unreal Unearth falters in places – ‘Francesca’ aims to be a massive, stadium rock song, but comes across flat – overuse of reverb on the chorus vocals nullifies the impact they could otherwise have. ‘To Someone From A Warm Climate (Uiscefhuaraithe)’ is pleasant, but lacks a really impactful moment or shift from typical Hozier style to make it stand out. ‘Anything But’ is another indie pop-influenced track, but again, does not have any features that prevent it from being forgettable.
Ultimately though, these moments do not detract too much from what is a solid crop of songs. The highlights are some of Hozier’s best songs to date and help to make the four year gap between sophomore effort Wasteland, Baby! and Unreal Unearth justifiable. It only suffers from being perhaps a little too long – with some of the more forgettable songs trimmed, this would stand out of Hozier’s best crop of songs to date.
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