Our music reviews seek to trace the narratives that weave between songs and albums. Check out our Rhythmic Fiction tag for other stories told through music.
It’s a pleasant surprise to see a true blues artist on pop radio in 2014. The Black Keys are the perfect example of a blues rock (more rock than blues) group who burst onto the mainstream scene with a sound that was revolutionary not in how much it changed music, but in how it reaffirmed the staying power of staple rhythms behind heavy distortion riffs and lyrics of struggle and loss. Their seventh studio album El Camino took home the 2013 Grammy’s for Best Rock Album, Best Rock Song, and Best Rock Performance (both for the single “Lonely Boy”).
Now, just in time for serious Grammy’s 2015 chatter, we have another artist bursting into mainstream pop consciousness with a sound that both reminisces and transcends the Blues.
“Freshly disowned in some frozen devotion”
Hozier’s self-titled album is blues, blues rock, and R&B all at once. With a smooth tenor voice and instrumentals that dig into the soul of rhythm and blues, Hozier is primed for a breakout year with his first album.
The first song and single, “Take Me to Church,” is surprising in its authenticity. This song is pure gospel, from the resonating harmony of the piano and backing vocals to the metaphorical religious tones of the lyrics. This song immediately presents both the smooth lows and the soaring highs of Hozier’s sonorous voice. The irony of the song comes in its gospel structure, even as the lyrics build a shrine not to God, but to the singer’s tortuous love for another.
“Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene” sets the dark tone of the album, describing both the isolation and need that comes with addiction. Hozier’s poetic lyrics build with a steady rhythm into a pained, not-quite-wailing chorus which feels completely real.
The third song takes a lighter musical turn. “Jackie and Wilson” features a light, head-bopping distortion riff playing behind lyrics about a “vignette” of a relationship which ends as abruptly as the song. “Someone New” follows with a rhythm that teases gospel and R&B at once. The lyrics again hint at a strained relationship without saying so outright, and reminds the listener how easy it is to become distracted from what’s in front of them. What is apparent by this point in the album is the wonderful harmony of instrumentals and backing vocals behind Hozier’s surprising vocal range and simple yet poignant guitar picking.
“The god that heroin prays to”
“To Be Alone” is the album’s first song of straight blues. Light guitar picking mimics the fragmented words bleeding from a pained heart while a heavy drum pattern drives the puncture deeper. Like much of Hozier’s lyrics, (“But you don’t know what hell you put me through / To have someone kiss the skin that crawls from you”), “To Be Alone” blurs the line between pleasure and pain, always hinting at insatiable love, yet unrequited.
“Someone New” points to the loss of innocence after an experience (or repeated experiences) of this unrequited love. The soft, airy blues tones of the song belie the pang of envy felt when he describes his “Rope in hand for your other man to hang from a tree”.
The next song, “In A Week,” reveals fully the natural, unforced poetry of Hozier’s songwriting and subtly dark themes of his music. Light acoustic picking and a plodding drum rhythm are all that’s needed to drive this song along. Hozier takes a back seat to the soothing voice of Karen Cowley, who carries the emotional weight of the song, like a specter humming in the night.
“In A Week” encapsulates the overall feel of this album. When first heard casually, this song is a slow ballad about a man and woman who feel at home with each other. (The final chorus repeats “I’ll be home with you”.) Then, once the lyrics are fully understood, the allusions to death become apparent. (“I have never known peace like the damp grass that yields to me / I have never known hunger like the insects that feast on me”.) Even presumably innocuous verses about “this slumber that creeps to me” or “your hand in my hand, so still and discreet” carry meaning beyond a deep, restful sleep.
However, these lyrics still carry double meaning. The song speaks of a couple who lie still together for so long that they “become the flowers” and “feed well the land”. It is an endearing sentiment, if perhaps a bit noir on the surface. It is at once sweet and grim, beautiful and melancholy.
And in that the setting of the entire album is found: it is a graveyard, filled with love and sorrow; pleasure and pain; darkness and light. Hozier’s blues are not focused on the cynicism of love and life. They are the blues because they juxtapose — even relish — the opposing forces of nature and relationships.
“Our veins are busy but my heart’s in atrophy”
“Sedated” opens with a low beat and harmonizing piano melody. The drums break open into a chippy rhythm in the chorus, bringing an R&B feel to the song. The juxtapositions of distracting and sedating the mind continue throughout with lyrics admitting that “We are deaf, we are numb / Free and young and we can feel none of it”.
This is followed with a slow R&B ballad that speaks of a safer love where he can escape from his “drunken sin”. “Working Boys” is a steady song that once again alludes to death to describe the power of love: “No grave can hold my body down / I’ll crawl home to her”.
The grave is then exhumed in “Like Real People Do”, a light folk melody about a buried past: “Why were you digging? What did you bury / Before those hands pulled me from the earth.”
“It Will Come Back” is another dark blues chant about teasing a metaphorical creature. The song’s climax builds with Jaws-esque, heartbeat notes that conjure images of a wolf stalking just beyond the reaches of a fire’s glow.
“Foreigner’s God” strays between R&B and Gospel, nearly sobbing about a lost love interest who “moved with shameless wonder” and leaves the speaker in incosolable grief.
In “Cherry Wine,” we find Hozier pining for a lover who “stains the sheet of some other”. The acoustic guitar is light and airy, and combined with the sounds of chirping birds, is reminiscent of yellow sunlight dappling through dew-soaked trees. But even here, the rising of the sun is bittersweet.
“In the Woods Somewhere” is a haunting song with dark blues roots. The speaker is woken in the night by the human-like scream of a fox, wounded by another, unnamed creature that proceeds to hunt him through the woods and haunt his dreams ever after. (Have you ever heard a fox yelp in the night? It’s a mix somewhere between a baby crying and a woman screaming, and it is chilling.)
A blues rock, off-beat rhythm drives home the final song in “Run”. Hozier’s backing tracks layer the lyrics with the instrumentals, as the song draws steadily on towards an ending that leaves the haunting air of the album hanging on, echoing beyond the last note.
“The night so black that the darkness hummed”
Hozier’s debut album is a fever dream of sorrow, wounds old and fresh, and insatiable pleasure. The mixed emotional tones of the album as a whole leave the listener as bewildered as the subject of each song. Hozier’s lyrics are wonderfully poignant. He digs into himself with a dry realism that makes his music feel like masochism, at least in part.
The album vacillates between blues, R&B, and folk, never fully grasping a definitive style, although the blues appear to be Hozier’s wheelhouse. “To Be Alone,” “Someone New,” and “It Will Come Back,” fully express the range of Hozier as both a songwriter and an emotive creature.
While “Take Me to Church” has become known for its power, especially with a music video featuring hateful violence, the emotional depth of Hozier’s music resonates throughout each of the 15 tracks of his debut album.
Note: All lyrics quoted from AZlyrics.com.