Album Review: Hozier – Hozier

By on Monday, 6th October 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

It almost seems irrelevant to write a review of Hozier‘s self-titled debut album at this point. His hit track ‘Take Me to Church’ has been all over radio and internet for months now, and the song’s themes of sexuality and rebellion against institutionalised religion have been discussed ad nauseum. He’s previously released two EPs, ‘Take Me to Church’ and ‘From Eden’ (the latter previously reviewed here), which contain the bulk of the material on the full album, as well as several individual tracks and videos. But, if you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past 6 months and haven’t heard about Hozier, now’s the time to come out and have a listen.

The album opens with the dramatic ‘Take Me to Church’, which despite its predictability is a strong choice, as it foreshadows the musical and emotional themes Hozier explores in the rest of the songs. The strong blues and gospel influence sets the sonic tone, and the two repeats of the ‘Amen’ section still give me the same goosebumps I experienced when I heard him perform the song live at SXSW earlier this year. Both this song and second track ‘Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene’ both reference the literary idea of la petite mort, or small death, which is often used as a metaphor for orgasm. Perhaps as important, however, as the sensual connotation is the subtler implication of having a deep emotional experience, and the music later on the album is nothing if not emotional.

Along with the prevalent religious themes in many of his lyrics, Hozier also employs a distinctly gospel sound in the backing vocals on several tracks, including the sultry ‘Work Song’ and the more pop-oriented ‘Sedated’. The upbeat track ‘Jackie and Wilson’ is Hozier’s wink and nod to his musical influences, with the playful final chorus line, “we’ll name our children Jackie and Wilson / raise ‘em on rhythm and blues”. But the earlier lyric in the chorus “with my mid-youth crisis all said and done / I need to be youthfully felt, ‘cos God I never felt young” might be more telling, as the depth in his songwriting belies his youthful age.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cSWqxbswQAY[/youtube]

As the album progresses, several interesting facets of Hozier’s work come more sharply into focus. The album versions of ‘To Be Alone’ and ‘From Eden’ are more refined than the EP releases, with the howling chorus of the former shifted exquisitely to the backing vocals and the bridge section of the latter featuring an interesting string and percussion arrangement that fits perfectly with the song’s serpentine lyrics.

Along with the lyrically Romantic (note the capital R) ‘From Eden’, the album includes three tracks that might have been considered art songs if they were taken out of context, due to their emphasis on the vocal melodies and poetic imagery. ‘In a Week’, featured in a live performance here, is a delicate but earthy take on eternal love, performed as a haunting duet with Karen Cowley of Wyvern Lingo. ‘Like Real People Do’ is a gentle ballad, with a perpetually rocking rhythmic motion and angelically blended backing vocals between the verses. ‘Cherry Wine’ closes the album with a deceptively sweet finger-picked guitar melody and ambient birdsong behind its passionate lyrics.

Overall, the album is an intriguing mix of styles, blending the raw sensuality of the blues with the immediacy of rock and the tempered sensitivity of folk and classical song. Hozier’s fundamental idea of death as a dramatic reference reminds me of the Death Gospel genre explored most notably by American singer/songwriter Adam Arcuragi, who described the concept as “anything that sees the inevitability of death as a reason to celebrate all the special wonder that is being alive and sentient”. It’s unusual in this era of ephemeral pop music to hear such lofty intellectual artistic ideas receiving air play on mainstream radio, but Hozier presents them on this album in an impressive display of his blossoming musical prowess.

8.5/10

Hozier‘s eponymous debut album is out today on Rubyworks / Island Records.

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