It’s time to brush up on your 14th-century poetry, as HOZIER takes a tour through Dante’s nine circles of Hell. Check out the latest cover story for our New Music Friday playlist edit, The Cut.
Words: Finlay Holden
Soulful music, rebellious lyrics, and a phenomenal head of hair – Hozier has long been a household name. Despite billions of streams, hundreds of thousands of tickets sold and a global audience, he’s still keen to mix things up; four years on from his last album, the Irish singer returns with ‘Unreal Unearth’, an epic 16-tracker only broadening the artist’s formidable scope. Where 2019’s ‘Wasteland, Baby!’ toyed with the idea of apocalypse, this record lives in the world of what happens next.
Bold artwork depicts gritted teeth only just exposed from beneath a mountain of dirt, a flower tightly clutched between those final human elements; there are a handful of associations that could be made here, but surprisingly the most relevant is 700-year-old poem, Dante’s Divine Comedy. In this tale, “Dante walks through each of the circles of hell and is met in each space with a new voice in the darkness, a new mouth that speaks to him about their strife, trouble and embitteredness,” Hozier recaps.
We’re hardly off to an optimistic start, then. “There is stuff here that’s a little bit darker, looks a little closer at things which are uncomfortable to acknowledge,” he explains, “but there’s also an element of intimacy. Much of the record leans into coldness and darkness, but it also remains hopeful; it’s all done with sympathy, and there is this humanity, this balancing of the scales. There’s a connectedness throughout that is the silver lining.”
Weaving a record into classic literature is a complex ambition, but not one that Hozier rigidly sticks to because “it’s important that these songs exist away from that.” Instead of tying his own narrative into a journey of entering formidable darkness and coming back into the light, ‘Unreal Unearth’ takes mild inspiration from events that are familiar to us all.
“We found ourselves in a moment where things changed; a lot of people were at risk of losing a great deal and had to contend with a great deal of new circumstances,” he recalls of 2020. “Contexts changed; old circumstances maybe didn’t work for us anymore. We all found ourselves out the other side of it… so the Divine Comedy became a device to structure the album as that same journey into something unfamiliar and out the other side.”
Leading the album campaign with ‘Francesca’, new colours are immediately explored in terms of production elements as grungy, rocky stylings make an immediate impression. On the other hand, the swagger of recent single ‘De Selby (Part 2)’ contrasts this with pop-fuelled momentum; it seems like the acclaimed singer is pushing his own boundaries further than ever before.
Hozier is not burdened by his history, however. “I try not to consider what the expectations are because sometimes the song just has to go where it wants to even while you’re trying to make it,” he shares. “This album sits in various eras and styles and is a little retrospective as well. Each circle, each song feels like it’s something new, something different.”
We’re not necessarily entering a new era of the artist’s output, but a revitalised approach is evident. While it is well known that early tracks were demoed in his parents’ attic, this time, a group of professional musicians helped him jam ideas in LA to kick off the writing process with a big and brave backdrop.
“Undeniable terror is part of life on Earth”Hozier
“It was so freeing to just jam these exciting soundscapes and get into a groove, and as a result, we created a huge amount of work very quickly,” he recalls. “We ended up with a lot of material to play with, and it opened up this new way to begin a song for me. I’d always sat down at an instrument or found something in my head in the past, but to be in a space and just be excited again, especially after the pandemic, was really energising.”
The true identity in this discography is the lyric, though, and the political stance that started all the way back with ‘Take Me To Church’ has never once wavered. However, it’s not in service of any greater mission: “I don’t look to do anything other than what interests me. The issues that find their way into the music are ones that I find interesting. It’s what activates or annoys me in my day-to-day, what pisses me off, or what I find interesting and important. Sometimes I would love to keep stuff a little bit more frivolous, a little less concerned; part of me is envious of music that goes unburdened by certain questions.”
One song that probes with many such queries is ‘Butchered Tongue’, which uses the Wexford Rebellion of 1798 as a rather specific lens through which to observe irreparable destruction. “It’s reflecting on the tragedy of cultures who have lost the meaning of their own words,” Hozier explains. “We’re very fortunate in Ireland that we have a solid written history; there’s so much there to be learned and build back from. That’s not always the case in indigenous destinations around the world; there are many people that do not have that luxury. No one can say for certain what these places now mean; there will never be a translator.”
Misgivings of our modern world are explored throughout ‘Unreal Unearth’ – ‘Eat Your Young’, in particular, embodies the absolute gluttony of hierarchical capitalism, demonstrating greed and desperation in a story that all too closely mirrors our governmental leadership in 2023.
When discussing the idea of change and whether we can learn from past mistakes, Hozier answers that “we all have the capacity. Like anybody, I myself fall into repeating patterns myself, and I’m sure there are things I wish I had learned faster, but I feel like a different person year on year. I feel like a totally different person than I did on the last album, and that is definitely a good thing.”
“Do I think we can envision the same for human society as a whole? I’m not that optimistic,” he laughs, “truly. When we talk about the ways in which we cultivate and perpetuate systems of power, you’re stepping far away from conversations of morality, stuff that concerns human experience and the value of human empathy.”
There is a brief pause before he highlights a hint of optimism in the rebellion against such systemic organisation. “I see growing signs that people are beginning to recognise that a lot of the systems we have just accepted for a long time don’t really have a long-term viability,” he states. “I’m encouraged to see people work towards greater sustainability, things like that provide much-needed hope.”
“Much of the record leans into coldness and darkness, but it also remains hopeful”Hozier
While some of Hozier’s work can often offer a reassuring squeeze of the hand, the brutality of themes explored on his third album doesn’t always align in that way, and sometimes that is the natural and just way of things.
“I wouldn’t say that I even try to be affirming in the work,” he admits, “at times you can’t possibly offer affirmation or any sort of comfort. In a song like ‘Who We Are’, it’s about simply sitting in and accepting that this undeniable terror is part of life on Earth. We bear witness to this experience of life with all of the light and shade; not one thing is ever perfectly terrible or perfectly great.”
Be that as it may, we must be reminded that this is a journey through the darkness and back to the light. ‘First Light’ is the last offering on the record, with the protagonist ascending from the ninth and final circle of fell and showing fundamental transformation since the opener, ‘De Selby (Part 1)’.
“If that first song is about the internal space you can reflect upon when you’re left alone in quiet and darkness, ‘First Light’ is the opposite of that,” Hozier reflects. “It is seeing the world for the first time. It is this little intimate moment of looking over and sharing a space with somebody else as morning comes. This sense of reconciliation and togetherness became a hopeful ascent to end the album with.”
Regardless of the strife and turmoil he so loves to comment on, Andrew Hozier-Byrne emerges with the listener as a revitalised spirit by the end of ‘Unreal Unearth’. Ten years in the game and a world away from his first famous single, his ability to share complex, stunning and well-crafted material is only heightening.
“As time goes on, I absolutely feel more solid on my own two feet and in step with myself as an artist,” he concludes, and the deep scope of this effort provides ample evidence of his assured stride. “I feel more confident in the work that I make and less inclined to second guess what the work has to be, instead just trusting that things are what they are.” ■
Hozier’s album ‘Unreal Unearth’ is out now. Follow Dork’s The Cut Spotify playlist here.