Review: Hozier’s ‘Wasteland, Baby!’ is a pleasant musical surprise
This past Friday, Hozier’s second studio album was released, closing a five year gap between his debut album from 2014 and his latest. Given the massive success of the Irish singer’s first album, “Hozier” and five years’ worth of expectation, Hozier’s second album was released upon high anticipation. So does ‘Wasteland, Baby!’ rise to the challenge?
In short, yes. The album does what good second albums are supposed to do for an artist: act as both a continuation and an evolution, establishing a sense of artistic unity while remaining relevant to the social, political and cultural context in which it finds itself.
‘Wasteland, Baby!’ as evident in the title, explores themes of decay, an idea that was introduced in his first album in songs like “In a Week” and “Run.” In an interview with NPR, Hozier said the album was “informed quite a bit by the political climate of the last 12 months,” and as such, it is rife with images of tumult and degeneration, the stripping of assumptions. The song “Be” speaks of Atlas shaking the earth and sea levels rising, but then asks that we be “bold in a battered and desolate land,” a Byronic hero who finds strength in chaos. This same idea is taken in a different direction in songs like “No Plan” where we are encouraged to rejoice in the freedom allowed by the overturned rules of a new world order. This idea is taken still further in “Sunlight,” where, qua Icarus, he enjoys the burn of his lover’s sunlight.
Hozier more than delivers on the bluesy, gospel-type sound that made “Take Me to Church” an international hit and placed him on the world stage. “Movement,” the third track on the album, is exemplary of Hozier’s vocal range and power, his effortless co-mingling of soft and loud tones, gentle and harsh vocalization. “Movement” is an exercise in allusion, each reference like a picture in a collage until an atmosphere is built. One line references the biblical Jonah swallowed by the whale, another the famous dancer Fred Astaire. The Ukrainian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin, who is mentioned in the lyrics, features in the music video released in November.
Despite the song’s many achievements, however, “Almost (Sweet Music)” is for me the standout song of the album. The lyrics reference titles of jazz songs by famous artists like Duke Ellington, Chet Baker and Billie Holiday to tell a story of someone who is almost happy in their new relationship but can’t stop thinking about their past love. The music is upbeat without being poppy, the lyrics are poetic without being obscure, but most importantly, the song is catchy. It is what Hozier does so well, giving mind and substance to what could be mindless and substanceless bops.
However, the album does stray somewhat from what might be expected from the singer largely known for guitar picking and lilting harmonies. You might wonder, where is the folk? Many of the songs on ‘Wasteland, Baby!’ feel more anthemic with prominent percussion and belting vocals, no more so than the opening track, “Nina Cried Power” featuring Mavis Staples, which pays tribute to protest songs from the civil rights era. It employs a sort of call and response motif between Hozier and Staples to build energy and intensity, echoing the Nina Simone classic “Sinnerman” where she repeats the word power for the majority of the ten-minute long song. The folksiest song on the album is “Shrike” which utilizes chord progressions familiar to listeners of traditional Irish music. It’s a graceful song, evocative of silent woods and green meadows. It’s also a love song mourning lost opportunities. The majority of the songs on the album are indeed love songs, in some form or another, which contemplate various aspects of relationships past and present.
So how are we to understand the “wasteland” the album explores? Does it contain the wrecks of relationships? Does it represent the sociopolitical degeneration we are experiencing circa 2019 A.D.? Or, like any good poem, is it everything you see it as at once? Hozier’s second album proves him to be one of the most talented artists currently active and if you haven’t listened to it yet, I would strongly recommend it.