The blues-rock power ballad “Take Me to Church” was not just Hozier’s breakout hit, but the kind of epochal debut that renders the ensuing career an afterword. It had a raw, rude edge that won him mainstream acclaim and deep devotion among queer people, who heard the song as a condemnation of Christian homophobia. Unreal Unearth, Hozier’s third studio album, not only fails to best “Take Me to Church,” but makes a person wonder how a song so singular and strange could ever have sprung forth from the author of this collection of clichés.
Hozier is credited as sole lyricist on just two of this album’s 16 tracks; not coincidentally, those two vastly exceed the others in quality and feeling. The first, “Butchered Tongue,” is the album’s best, a fingerpicked composition expressing eloquent rage against Britain’s long history of violence in Ireland, rife with unsettling imagery. The second, “Unknown / Nth,” is less successful, with an incoherent mix of metaphors—“You were held frozen like an angel to me”—but still bears the dreamy, mist-on-the-moor energy that compels Hozier’s most avid listeners.
The rest of this record, which boasts a dozen co-writers, is a descent into hell. Hozier cites Dante’s Inferno as inspiration, and this is, loosely, a concept album: We hear of gluttony (“Eat Your Young”), lust (“Francesca”), and wrath (the aforementioned “Butchered Tongue”). Nary a song goes by without some mention of heaven, angels, or God; Hozier brings up a handful of mythological figures, but plays fast and loose with their lore. “I, Carrion (Icarian)” throws Icarus and Atlas into a blender: “I don’t have wings, love, I never will/Soarin’ over a world you are carryin’.” These references are about as thoughtful as bullet points on a freshman-year Great Books syllabus. They scan as a naked ploy for depth, and Hozier is quick to abandon them when he’d rather invoke “sunlight on the Mississippi” or build a verse by naming different car parts.
Hozier calls the album’s sound “eclectic,” but disjointed is more apt. Wretched lite-funk lead single “Eat Your Young,” which peaked at No. 67 on the Billboard Hot 100, sounds like Jason Mraz singing Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” in falsetto. “Damage Gets Done,” a duet with Brandi Carlile, is a callback to the big-tent indie sound of the brief moment when people tattooed cartoon-villain mustaches on their index fingers. The true nadir, though, may be “All Things End.” Hozier begins the song by listing clichés—“weight on my chest,” a broken heart, time slipping through fingers—atop smooth jazz punctuated by finger-snapping so mechanically regular it sounds like he forgot to turn off the metronome. And that’s before he brings in a gospel choir. The caution-to-the-wind lyrics—“All that we intend is scrawled in sand/Or slips right through our hands”—sound defeatist, utterly at odds with the perseverant uplift and righteous fury of the Black gospel tradition. Hopping from genre to genre, Unreal Unearth never manages to stick a landing.
Musicians who rely on co-writers often find themselves on the end of bad-faith criticism that misunderstands the creative process: Collaboration is not just natural, but necessary for growth. But there is such a thing as too many cooks. Hozier’s voice, vision, and social commentary are really only present in “Butchered Tongue”; everywhere else, he sounds like an interloper. It’s a story nearly as old as the myths he re-tells: a struggling musician records a smash in total obscurity, which lands him a record deal, at which point the powers that be smooth every unruly feather on their strange new bird. Unreal Unearth seems to chronicle the ensuing creative death.
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