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October 4, 2023

Hozier's latest album is a pilgrimage through hell and heartbreak

By HELENA GIFFORD | September 9, 2023



Hozier’s third album takes inspiration from Dante’s Inferno.

The Irish singer-songwriter Hozier released his third album, Unreal Unearth, on August 18. Drawing on R&B, folk and rock influences, the album is heavily steeped in ideas of heartbreak and betrayal but also takes time to celebrate joyful memories despite the pain.

In interviews, Hozier has cited that the descent through hell in Dante’s Inferno has provided much of the inspiration for this album, both thematically and as a loose framing device. The album begins with an initial exploration of darkness and creation with “De Selby (Part 1)” before continuing forward into the nine circles of hell, including lust, gluttony, greed and more. 

Far from being contrived, the influence from Inferno works perfectly in the context of Hozier’s previous discography. In the past, he has often drawn on literary themes and put his unique twist on Catholic dogma and imagery, with the 2013 hit “Take Me to Church” being the most famous example. On top of that, like Dante’s Inferno, Hozier’s work does not shy away from addressing and making statements about contemporary politics.

One of the most political songs on the album is “Eat Your Young,“ a song whose theme sits squarely in the third circle of the hell, gluttony. The narrator of the song prescribes eating your own children, with such lyrics as “skinning the children for a war drum” and “it’s quicker and easier to eat your young.” With this grisly cannibalistic imagery, the song criticizes the way older generations cast aside the needs of future generations in order to achieve personal gain.

A song with lower stakes, “Damage Gets Done,” features the vocals of Brandi Carlile and has an upbeat, summer pop song sound that makes it easy to enjoy. Lyrically, it centers on the invincible feeling of youth and how temporary it truly is. But it also urges the listener to make the best of that time, highlighting the importance of being a bit reckless in your youth as that’s “not how the damage gets done.”

And the penultimate song of the album, “Unknown / Nth,” is stunning. Depicting the pain of heartbreak, this song ends the journey through hell with the deepest and most frozen circle, treachery. It’s a quiet piece, with only vocals and a simple repeating guitar line taking up much of the runtime. The barren and echoing sound is a perfect representation of the loneliness of betrayal and fresh loss.

Beyond these examples, the album experiments with several different types of sounds. The song “De Selby (Part 2)” has a lot of funk elements with a strong bass groove and signature snappy percussion. The fuzzy electric guitars and strong drum presence in “Francesca” give it alternative rock vibes, and when mixed with an Irish folk sound in the vocal verses, this song absolutely hits. In contrast, “I, Carrion (Icarian)” is more folk-forward with a main emphasis on the acoustic guitar sound, fleshed out with strings underneath. 

However, the sonic exploration that creates the lush soundscapes of the album also gives it a slightly chaotic sound. The production is quite messy on several tracks. There are often so many different textures and so much layered instrumentation that the melody gets lost in the noise. For this reason, I’d highly recommend listening to live versions of the songs wherever possible. 

Yet, while the songs are sonically diverse, the thematic elements of the lyrics unite the album into a truly cohesive unit. Hozier’s music often plays on the relationship between the sacred and the profane, almost always in the context of love. In previous albums, this took the angle of indulging in the sweet sin and tragedy of romance because the love was so rich that it made it worthwhile. 

But in a departure from the cheerful nihilism of earlier albums, Unreal Unearth treats the sin and tragedy of love with much greater immediacy, truly reckoning with that pain like never before. There’s a respect for the process of dealing with loss that wasn’t present before, showing thematic growth on top of the musical experimentation.

And yet, after the dark themes of the album, the final song leaves the listener on a lighter note. “First Light” gently leads the listener out of hell and into the light of day. With angelic choruses and bright instrumentation, it has a marked tone difference from the rest of the album and leaves you with a restored sense of hope you didn’t even realize was missing.

Overall, the album cover perfectly encapsulates this strange and wonderful collection of songs. From under a layer of dirt, a widely grinning mouth is exposed, clenching a daisy in its teeth. The image is macabre and unnerving, but it celebrates an intense love for life despite already being dead and buried.

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