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Album Review: Unreal Unearth by Hozier

Image courtesy of Laura Fedele via Flickr (Under License Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0))

“I’m of the belief that the personal is the political,” said Andrew Hozier-Byrne in a 2021 interview with Forbes. Hozier is best known for his 2014 hit song ‘Take Me to Church’. Seven years on, his discography has expanded to include his debut album Hozier, sophomore album Wasteland, Baby! and a collaboration with MEDUZA— a foray into electronic music that surprised fans.

The most recent addition to his discography is Unreal Unearth, an album that feels like a balance between his first two albums. While Wasteland, Baby! reached for Hozier’s most direct influences—the lyrics of the single ‘Nina Cried Power’ mention Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Curtis Mayfield, Patti Smith, and Joni Mitchell, among others—Unreal Unearth resists that direct reference. Wasteland, Baby! saw Hozier finding joy in a post-apocalyptic world. His third album is what it says on the tin; Unreal Unearth uses Dante’s Inferno as its closest inspiration, allowing Hozier to explore hell. On this record, we have progressed beyond the wasteland; we are now venturing towards and through the afterlife itself.

Unreal Unearth’s structure is masterful. It’s an album that, more than either of Hozier’s previous two projects, is aware of its body. By that I mean that its beginning, middle, and end are meticulously arranged. Hozier has taken a special pleasure in cataloguing the journey itself. ‘De Selby (Part 1)’ is the perfect album opener, all sparse minimalism and quiet strings whose gorgeous Irish outro swells and then breaks into the groovy, bass-lined ‘De Selby (Part 2)’. This upbeat second half then makes way for the soft ‘First Time’, whose light string arrangements and easy rhythm align with its hopefulness. No matter where you are on the album, there’s a quiet hope to be found in its lines and the spaces in between. I consider Hozier an expert on love only because he is so assured in its uncertainties, because he intently pulls apart the unknown over and over again. The entire project of Unreal Unearth is about how much is undetermined, how much has been lost, and what is left to cling onto.

Loss is most heartbreaking on ‘Butchered Tongue’, a track about the seventh circle of hell—the circle of violence—and the Wexford Rebellion of 1798. It shows the terrible violence inflicted upon the Irish by the British and recalls other places where indigenous people have also been driven out that still retain their indigenous names, like Apalachicola and Hushpukena. However, it’s also wonderfully meta. Hozier sings, “A butchered tongue still singin’ here above the ground”, basking in the miracle of still having the Irish language, of being able to use his craft in a way that feels true and honest and powerful.

What comes after loss? Hozier has been asking and answering this question since his debut, and I have always loved his answer. It’s always been love for Hozier; in his music, love is the true church. I’ve always thought that his music quite literally feels like attending church, not just because of his gospel and choral influences but because of the sheer passion that is evident in the way he sings and writes. Even when you strip away the striking drum kicks on ‘Eat Your Young’ and leave him with piano and faint strings on the ballad ‘To Someone From A Warm Climate’, his voice carries through. It’s his most powerful instrument. There is something so earnest about the way he sings, completely without abandon. On this track, he is beseeching when he sings “Darling” and tender when it comes to “Uiscefhuaraithe”. He is always careful.

The music throughout Unreal Unearth finds delicate spaces despite the grandeur that comes with its orchestral arrangements, especially on the impressive instrumental track ‘Son of Nyx’. Even devastation is painted with a poetic sort of delicacy; “This phantom life, it sharpens like an image”, he sings on ‘Who We Are’. Love has failed him as much as anybody else, and on this song, the lyrics “Hold me like water / Or Christ, hold me like a knife” take on a new meaning. He offers something that gives us life and an object that cuts through, aware of his own unavoidable capacity for hurt.

Throughout Unreal Unearth, Hozier writes with a succinct awareness for the world and the self, and of human passion. So again, what is there to hope for when nothing makes sense, when you’ve lost so much? In the case of ‘To Someone From A Warm Climate’, it’s “another leg around you in the bedframe.” Through everything, he seems to be saying, there will always be this. Something small and soft to hold that is as familiar as your palm.

It makes sense, then, that the record makes room for brighter songs like ‘Damage Gets Done’ and ‘Anything But’, the latter song sounding like a version of Harry Styles’ ‘Canyon Moon’, if Styles chose to sing about mortality and the figure of Death. “I wanna be the shadow when my bright future's behind me / I wanna be the last thing anybody ever sees”, Hozier sings. It’s his acceptance that the bright future might already have passed him by that makes the song radical and freeing. The personal is political; it is defiant to hope in a world with so much despair.

Unreal Unearth ends on ‘First Light’, when we are finally able to see Heaven. Hozier sings, “You filling my cup / The sun coming up / Like I lived my whole life / Before the first light. In an interview with The Independent, he calls this song one of ‘reconciliation’. He has finally emerged on the other side. “Getting through still has its cost, he sang on ‘Who We Are’. Yet there is hope in getting through even if you have to make circles through Hell before you reach it. There will always be that promise of morning, that promise of beyond. And perhaps that’s what matters. That despite everything, we have held onto so much, and there is even more to behold—water or knife, heaven or hell, love and love and love—until we know the end.

To find out more about Hozier, check out his Twitter, Website and Spotify

Edited by Lucy Blackmur, Music Editor