Updated: May 9, 2020
“I’m in love, I’m in love with you | And I love, that love soon might end”
Image from pitchfork.com
Those are ominous words with which to carry on a relationship. That along with the depth of emotion and electric attraction that draws two people together, the temporary nature of such a union is acknowledged. And by cherishing its fragility, the love that binds grows stronger as if having something to prove before the last grain of sand falls from the top of the hour glass, meeting its inevitable end.
Acclaimed for his smoothly booming voice, it can (and should) be argued that the lyrics are the greatest strength of Hozier’s music. With his iconic crooning at the forefront of the audible onslaught, rhythmically-inclined arrangements with a penchant for choir-like vocals craft the worlds in which the songs exist. But what is a world without inhabitants? Hozier’s words breathe life into the scenes that the instrumentation so vividly creates. Pure poetry, the lyrics are breathtakingly beautiful on their own, but take the listener on a journey through an all-encompassing alternate reality when backed by the music. So carefully curated with layers of harmonic vocals and different pieces of percussion that fit perfectly together like an intricate puzzle, each song is a meticulously crafted composition. And it is with that assurance of musical masterpieces however far off into the horizon that his fans could weather the five years between studio releases for the arrival of his sophomore LP, Wasteland, Baby!
A continuation of the debut Hozier, Andrew Hozier-Byrne returned home to Ireland following the conclusion of touring behind the eponymous record and took an entire year off in hopes of recapturing the creative space that spawned the likes of “Take Me to Church”, “From Eden”, and “Cherry Wine.” Utilizing this revamped approach, the first track, “Nina Cried Power” leaps off the record with an emphasis on percussion. With the refrain “it’s not the waking it’s the rising” repeated throughout the song, Hozier invokes the names of Nina Simone, Billie Holliday, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, James Brown, and Mavis Staples (whose vocals are featured) to exemplify that action over awareness is a necessity in bringing about change. By “crying power”, the notable artists referenced in the song called out the negatives associated with it-corruption, abuse, suppression-and in doing so drained strength from their oppressors, transferring it to the oppressed.
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Pivoting from the rhythmically-driven anti-establishment gospel music of “Nina Cried Power”, Hozier returns to a familiar lyrical theme in “Almost (Sweet Music)” - that of love lost. Incorporating a sparse percussion arrangement of quickly successive claps and a bass drum, the unconventional time signature harkens back to “Someone New” and “From Eden” off of the debut while the theme in the lyrics is similar as well. Like “Nina Cried Power”, Hozier again name drops classic artists while the protagonist in his song seeks comfort in their music after a break-up. However, his attempts go in vain as the songs of Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Duke Ellington among others serve as a constant reminder of his relationship. The slyly impressive guitar riffing between deliberate strums that contribute to the upbeat nature of the music resonate optimism, but underneath the protagonist struggles to find closure. Coming full circle from the first pre-chorus in which Hozier sings “I’m almost me again, she’s almost you”, the gravity of the protagonist’s internal struggle becomes clear in the last verse when his new lover will “turn to me awake and ask, ‘Is everything alright’”. The chorus echoes the response that runs through his mind but never crosses his lips: “I wouldn’t know where to start, sweet music playing in the dark.” He is simultaneously unable to be honest with his new lover and tell her that his heart is with another, nor is he able to face the music and return to the one that broke his heart. Leaving the matter at hand unresolved, joyous harmonies blast through the bridge and into the chorus where Hozier vocally riffs away, somehow finding solace in the confusion by being honest if only with himself.
Backing away from the energy of the first two tracks, the album’s lead single “Movement” is a slow, sultry ode to physical romance and lustful love. The vibe set by low vocals, deliberate bass drum kicks accented by well-placed claps, and ambient keyboard notes, Hozier depicts being entranced by watching the imperfect beauty of a significant other dance. Bass and organ enter the soundscape along with high backing vocals as Hozier surrenders to his partner provocateur in the chorus: “So move me baby, shake like the bough of a willow tree | You do it naturally, move me baby.” Following the vocal showcase of the bridge, the drums dramatically crash in and gasp breath into the arrangement as choral backing vocals allow it to fully flourish. The song then meets a soft yet powerful close as the instruments fade away and Hozier’s vocal prowess meshes with that of the choir. Keeping with the theme of lust as is a popular one throughout Hozier’s music, “No Plan” presents it in a much different manner with a thick blues riff that comes in over an airy rhythm guitar intro. Hazy and lazy, presented without regard for reading too far into things as the lyrics later suggest, the fuzz-blare effects sound similar to horns while the bassline applies the groove in mass quantity. In the first verse, Hozier questions attachment to the outcome of decisions and the reasons behind hesitating to act emotionally in the romantic context, “When all things come from nothing, honey, if nothing’s gained.” Facing the possibility that fate is nonexistent and that there is no sense in waiting if the one you’re meant to be with never comes, Hozier becomes steadfast in his belief that, “There’s no plan, there’s no kingdom to come”. Coinciding with the finality of death, he then reveals a proposition to his love interest in the song, to enjoy each other without the worry of tomorrow by offering, “I’ll be your man, if you got love to get done.” The preposterous nature of refraining to live in the moment while the world keeps turning is mirrored by a guitar/synthesizer-mixed solo, imitating insanity with near dissonance before continuing behind the last chorus which ominously ends with the line, “There will be darkness again.”
Playing as the antithesis sister track to “No Plan”, the falsehood of living without regard for the future is affirmed in “Nobody” as, after having lived that lifestyle, the song’s protagonist gets hung up on a fling. With riffing similar to the upbeat vibe of “Almost”, it is a hungover, longing, lazy-day love song that results in the triumphant discovery of feelings through a dazed reverie brought on by an R&B beat with sprinklings of hammer-on chord strums. Tired of the recurring sights and parties of his travels, Hozier concedes in the first verse that, “I think about you, though, everywhere I go | And I’ve done everything and I’ve been everywhere, you know...But I’ve had no love like your love.” Keeping things upbeat, the empowering feel-good number “To Noise Making (Sing)” then rides in on the back of a piano-led progression. Although unabashedly optimistic, “To Noise Making” almost feels as though it is trying too hard to be cheerful. For instance, I feel as though it should play as the backdrop to the ending credits of a romantic comedy after the main character discovers their inner beauty. And there is nothing wrong with that! Overcoming a fear of failure by reaching inside and confronting that which scares you most is a victory that should be celebrated. However, coming from a man that has proven to be predisposed to brooding, his most relatable and impactful songs teeter on the edge of darkness. As such, the joyful demeanor of this track feels a bit forced. But maybe, like the song entails, Hozier is attempting to get out of his own comfort zone and reveal a part of his emotional interior that is seldom seen.
Image from songmeaningsandfacts.com
Re-introducing listeners to that signature somber tone for the first time on Wasteland, Baby!, “As It Was” seems to be a prequel to the tale told in debut hit “Work Song”. In the first verse, an ominously bare acoustic guitar accompanies Hozier’s reverb-accented vocals to tell of a damaged man returning to a relationship. For beneath all the broken layers that leave him unrecognizable on the surface, his love remains as it always was. Just as “Work Song” expresses love and gratitude for the equally-damaged woman that nursed the protagonist back to health after his “drunken sin”, “As It Was” tells of the drug-riddled past that led to the depression after which he is found on the debut record. Although “the highs hit the heights of [his] baby”, he professes in vain that they could not measure up. Bass, piano, and an arrangement of strings in the chorus build up his doomed plea to be taken back. Destined to fail, he resolves to turn back to the substances that brought him to that place, for although “half as beautiful”, they are the only things to induce the feelings close to that which were reserved for his love.
On the heels of this dark tale of drug-induced heartache comes what is easily the most beautiful composition of the album. Likening the blind devotion of love to a small bird of the same name that impales its prey in an act of implied sacrifice, “Shrike” features Irish-influenced acoustic finger-picking and reserved, well-placed percussion in the verses before filling in the sonic profile with piano, subdued synth bass, and strings in the choruses. The lyrics match the majesty of the music in melancholically reflecting on a since-ended relationship, pulsing true sadness through the oscillation of pained yells and gentle falsettos in the chorus. Heartbreakingly beautiful, Hozier sings of regret, seeing the err of his ways now that it is too late: “I couldn’t utter my love when it counted | Ah, but I’m singing like a bird ‘bout it now | I couldn’t whisper when you needed it shouted | Ah, but I’m singing like a bird ‘bout it now.” Lost in thought, remembering their time together, he sinks deeper into despair by acknowledging that she brought out the best in him: “Then when I met you, my virtues uncounted | All of that goodness is going with you now.” However, all of this reverie takes on the heir of an apologetic love letter destined to be delivered in person as the last verse reveals: “...fled to the city with so much discounted | Ah, but I’m flying like a bird to you now.” Regardless of how the message is received, he professes his new-found dedication and asks that she, “Remember me love, when I’m reborn | As the shrike to your sharp and glorious thorn”. Initially released as part of the Nina Cried Power EP, I am so incredibly glad that this one made it to the album.
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Contrasting “Shrike” by displaying a darker side of loyalty in love that borders on stalking, “Talk” is lyrically reminiscent of “To Be Alone” and “It Will Come Back” from Hozier’s debut. Musically, however, it charts its own path here with an R&B infusion. Just barely masking an eerie obsession behind intricately referential and poetic prose, the main character likens his feelings and the depth of his love to the story of Orpheus venturing into the underworld to save Eurydice in Greek mythology. However, he makes his intentions clear in the chorus: “I won’t deny I’ve got in my mind now the things I would do | So I try to talk refined now for fear that you’ll find out how I’m imagining you”. Without the music, the words alone are enough to make your skin crawl. Two sides of the same coin, love can be equally as scary as it is beautiful and Hozier considers both possibilities with equivalent lyrical depth. The follow-up to “Talk” is another song with a one-word title. Similar to the track that precedes it, “Be” harkens back to “Foreigner’s God”, a song toward the end of Hozier’s runtime. A love song amidst the fall of civilization, the ambience is set by atmospheric organ effects on keyboard layered atop distorted guitar licks. Anchored by a simplistic rhythm of one bass drum kick followed by one rimshot hit, the radio static effect on Hozier’s vocals mimics a broadcaster’s voice coming through antiquated speakers to deliver an emergency message. After giving real-world examples of drastic life-altering change in reference to current American politics like: “When the man who gives the order is born next time ‘round on the boat sent back” or to environmental disasters like: “Oh, when the seas rise to meet us | Oh, when there’s nothing left for you or I to do | Oh, when there’s nobody upstairs to receive us”, Hozier begs his lover to be the steady constant, to be his anchor in hurricane-rocked seas. Taking the themes in “No Plan” one step further in describing the end-times, Hozier supposes that the maintenance of his lover’s sameness will allow them to laugh in the face of destruction, seeing it through to all things being laid bare and true.
The blues influences return in a more pure fashion on “Dinner and Diatribes” with organic instrumentation that relies less heavily on effects than “No Plan”. Over a steadily pounding bass drum and a guitar laying heavy into hammer-ons, Hozier’s lyrics describe a lusty romance that has had enough of the formality and illusion of keeping up the appearance of a relationship. Showing dissatisfaction with the hoops that both parties involved believe they must jump through to gain the approval of others for the physical intimacy they crave, Hozier sings: “Honey this club here is stuck up, dinner and diatribes...Your friends are a fate that befell me, hell is the talking type.” Throwing caution to the wind, he then welcomes society’s disapproval in suggestively stating, “I’d suffer hell if you’d tell me what you’d do to me tonight.” The destructive “kind of love [Hozier’s] been dreaming of” is then symbolized in the animalistically primal percussive arrangement that builds in the chorus.
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Following the primitive drumming right out of society and into nature, “Would That I” likens a relationship on the rocks to the felling of a forest and the coinciding scorched-earth burning that takes place. Set as a reflection of the past, the main character muses that they were the trees and should have foreseen their fate, but chose to stay oblivious for fear of the end. As though bursting through the trees and yelling from the mountain tops in a desperate attempt to release the pent-up scorn, the vocals in the chorus boom forth loud and reverberant. However, that attempt proves futile as the main character focuses that scorn from this relationship long ago into all those of which he has since been a part, anxiously awaiting the moment he will leave his partners just as he was abruptly left. Descending into madness due to the isolation and inability to stay committed, Hozier sings: “With each love I cut loose, I was never the same | Watching still-living roots be consumed by the flame.” Realizing that his disdain of love can be traced back to having his heart broken, the main character faces the truth of the matter in the last verse. Coming to terms with his experiences of trauma in love having broken him beyond repair, Hozier sings: “Though I’ve handled the wood (been in relationships), I still worship the flame (look forward to the end) | As long as amber of ember glows (as long as my fire still burns) | All the “would” that I’d loved is long ago (the love I had to give died when you left).” After so vividly describing the irreversible impacts of losing love, “Sunlight” likens its rediscovery to illumination after being shrouded in darkness without it. Incorporating keys with a dark essence again similar to “Foreigner’s God”, but also including a forcefully strummed electric guitar in time with the bass drum, this one failed to resonate with me. I think that the highly repetitive chorus did not warrant the power of the choir vocals with which they are sung, or rather that their power could be better applied to more substantial lyrics as was done elsewhere throughout the album.
Still, given that critique of “Sunlight”, its darkness allows for a touching resolution in the album’s concluding title track, “Wasteland, Baby!” Using apocalyptic terms found elsewhere on the record in tracks like “No Plan” and “Be”, Hozier compares the honest, vulnerable moments of a fledgling relationship to the end of the world. The stripped back instrumentation of a finger-picked guitar with an alternating bass note matches that honestly while the vocals, sounding muddled as though spoken underwater, audibly symbolize the ambiguous nature of the metaphor. In taking that initial risk, it is easy to believe that everything will come crashing down if the result is not in your favor. However, even if things go well, there is still the temporary nature of life and, by association, love that adds an element of fragility. Likening a relationship to the fate of the Earth, both could be wiped out at any time without warning. A meteor, a death, a nuclear war, a fight. But it is knowing that the relationship cannot last forever that makes both parties involved love more fiercely. Ultimately, in accepting the inevitable end, you are able to carry on and move forward without worry or fear. For in doing so you can, “watch the death of the sun...and gaze unafraid” when the time comes while everybody else, “[sobs] from city roofs.” You know what is to come and you resolve to do what you can and love deeper in the time that you have. Mirroring the sentiment that love transcends the fear of death, ambient keys bring the song and the album to a peaceful close as if to send the main character and his lover drifting off into space together, being all that is left after watching the world and everything they knew fall away.
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“Honey, you’re familiar like my mirror years ago.”
Many songs on Wasteland, Baby! can be traced back to Hozier’s eponymous debut album, be it in terms of instrumentation, lyrical theme, or narrative. However, in traversing the familiar waters of love and lust, heartbreak and desperation, these tropes never seem faded or overdone. That is a credit to Hozier’s grandiose arrangements and talents as a wordsmith. His voice and instrumentation may be what people initially hear to peak their interest, but the lyrics are why they stay and listen. Working in tandem with one another, they both play an essential part in the music. For five years, Hozier fans anticipated the “the thing to come”, anxiously and trepidatiously waiting to see if it would be unrecognizably different from the EPs and LP that put him on the map or if it would be a lazy attempt to recreate “the things that have passed” that would pale in comparison. Thankfully, it is neither. There is no “Take Me to Church” lookalike on this record. And although it features a number of more upbeat songs akin to “Someone New” and “Jackie and Wilson”, a subtle darkness lurks beneath the facade of total optimism that is then shown in force on “Shrike”, “As It Was”, “Talk” and “Would That I”. He may be expanding his palette of rhythms and guitar tones, but rest assured, this is still Hozier and he is still brooding.
Please enjoy this live version of “Shrike” using the link below: