Hozier returns afresh on ‘Wasteland, Baby!’
Matthew Kellenberg | Thursday, March 21, 2019
“Take Me to Church” is one of the great pop songs of our time. The anthemic blues-gospel track tugs expertly at strings of devotion and disillusionment. Earnest “amens” juxtapose biting premonitions: “I’ll tell you my sins, and you can sharpen your knife.” The song’s key fluctuates between major and minor, evoking visceral agitation. Yet, Hozier’s voice may be the song’s greatest weapon. Plenty of songs on Andrew Hozier-Byrne’s 2014 debut translated Irish folk tropes into fresh, palatable chart music. But “Take Me to Church” alone had the gripping drama and propulsive anthemicism to make Hozier a bona fide folk star.
What could that term actually mean: “folk star?” Written in his family attic, Hozier’s debut speaks to the everyman’s personal turmoil and a homegrown feeling of political discontent. But commercial success changes an artist’s perspective. On Hozier’s sophomore LP, “Wasteland, Baby!” the singer-songwriter revisits the folk trappings of his early work. However, he does so with a more triumphant, lavish attitude than we have ever seen from him. On “Nobody,” the fifth song on his latest album, Hozier reveals, “I’ve been fed gold by sweet fools in Abu Dhabi / And I’ve danced real slow with Rockettes on dodgy molly.” It is an ironic line, with a grain of truth. For better or worse, “Wasteland, Baby!” speaks to a different folk’s experience than Hozier’s debut.
Hozier’s new, self-assured attitude first jumps out on the album opener, “Nina Cried Power.” The audience, Hozier boldy presumes, is on his side from the get-go. Thus, his political crusade needs no preface — just one song in, Hozier cries power. It is a sign that the artist believes to know his audience, and moreover, that the artist believes his audience knows him. Only an artist with Hozier’s universal charm could make such an assumption. Yet, even for him, it is a shaky step. Launching into an extrospective political anthem, Hozier skims over the inner turmoil that made his early work so engaging.
The next 13 tracks, however, give Hozier plenty of room to weave thoughtful musings and entertain his own creative impulses. On “Shrike,” Hozier uses the metaphor of a bird and a thorn to navigate a failed relationship. On the album’s self-titled closer, he frames political disarray as a grand backdrop for his own intimate expressions. Many small, delightful bits make this album pop. There is the thrilling buildup on “Dinner & Diatribes;” the funky bassline on “Noise Making (Sing);” the swaying melody on “Movement.” For any shortcomings, Hozier’s work is overbalanced with moments of sparkling ingenuity.
It cannot be easy for an artist to reconnect with his or her audience after a four-year hiatus, especially an artist with a primarily teenage audience. It would be dishonest for Hozier to pretend he has not matured and naive for him to assume his original audience members have not either. Yet, if Hozier were to swing too far towards self-reinvention, his work would disappoint countless fans long awaiting a true-to-form sequel to his first album. On “Wasteland, Baby!” Hozier strikes a firm balance between backward-looking songwriting and complete artistic transformation. The voice on “Wasteland, Baby!” is distinctly Hozier’s own, but with enough twists to reflect four years of artistic growth. “Wasteland, Baby!” is a well-maneuvered sophomore album by an artist whose career may have peaked at its inception.
Album: “Wasteland, Baby!”
Label: Rubyworks Records
Favorite Tracks: “Shrike,” “Movement,” “To Noise Making (Sing)”
If you like: Vance Joy, The Head and the Heart, Vulfpeck
Shamrocks: 3.5 out of 5