Hozier’s ‘Unreal Unearth’: Unearthing a broken heart
Anna Falk | Wednesday, September 13, 2023
Everyone’s favorite yearning Irish lad released his third studio album titled “Unreal Unearth” on Aug. 18. While it was not well-received by everyone, the majority of listeners across the internet agree it’s some of his best work so far.
In anticipation of the LP, Hozier released a three-track EP on March 17 titled “Eat Your Young” featuring a self-titled song, “All Things End” and “Through Me (The Flood).” From these early tracks and a Beyond the Stage newsletter, fans began to make conjectures about the work’s subject matter and thematic components. Even before the release of the completed work, it was quite evident that Hozier was making something based on all his favorite books, histories and tales.
“Unreal Unearth” as a whole descends through the nine circles of hell as depicted in Dante’s “Inferno.” Each level has a different grouping of the songs, and many of them feature characters or ideas discussed in “Inferno.” “Francesca” is one example of this, illustrating the real story of Italian noblewoman Francesca da Rimini and her affair with Paolo Malatesta (her husband’s brother). In “Inferno,” the lovers inhabit the second circle of hell — the circle of lust — and are punished for eternity by constant winds, representing the way in which their passion had swept them away. Hozier’s song tells their story but also creates another narrative emphasizing enduring devotion to one’s partner despite life’s challenges (“Da-ah, darlin’, I would do it again (Ah-ah, ah-ah) / If I could hold you for a minute”).
The tracks are also laced with references to Greek mythology — with lines like “I drank dry the river Lethe” from “First Time” and titles like “I, Carrion (Icarian),” “Son of Nyx” and “Abstract (Psychopomp).” Combining the material from well-known tales with those of “Inferno” adds depth to the parallels he makes to his own life throughout the album.
In “Abstract (Psychopomp),” Hozier puts himself in the position of a psychopomp — a guide who primarily escorts someone to the afterlife but can act as a supporting force throughout life transitions. He describes an instance where he saw someone run into traffic after an animal was hit, placing themselves in harm’s way in order to be there in the creature’s final moments. Paralleling this moment with the death of a romantic relationship makes it one of the album’s most heartrending pieces. I am physically incapable of sitting through the song without crying, especially with lyrics like “The poor thing in the road, its eye still glistening / The cold wet of your nose, the earth from a distance / See how it shines” being the standard.
As I’ve begun to describe, one thing the Irishman does best — which is especially illuminated in this album — is that he can masterfully weave his own stories of love and its hardships into familiar histories. His metaphors can distract from the masked truth — the truth that his relationships can be just as challenging as everyone else’s.
Hozier has been long-lauded for his lyrical prowess over the course of his career, but just because he can write incredible prose about his love for his partner does not mean his relationships are better or more enlightened than those of the rest of the world. He still knows heartbreak and pain like any other person. An abundance of lyrics from this album — including “Do you know I could break beneath the weight? / Of the goodness, love, I still carry for you / That I’d walk so far just to take / The injury of finally knowin’ you” and “And though I burn, how could I fall / When I am lifted by every word you say to me?” — showcase his romantic struggle.
The final track, titled “First Light,” brings home the messaging of the album, simultaneously painting a picture of Dante’s re-entrance into the world after his journey in “The Divine Comedy” and assuring the listener of the ephemerality of hardship.
Not everything in the LP is about heartbreak — see “Damage Gets Done (feat. Brandi Carlisle)” and “Butchered Tongue” — but Hozier’s vulnerability throughout the project lends a certain sense of intimacy and establishes a rapport with his audience. It is truly unreal.