Album Reviews

Hozier – Unreal Unearth

(Island) UK release date: 18 August 2023

With a voice that never fails to impress, the Irish singer’s third album unveils an anthemic edge to even the darkest of his songs

Hozier - Unreal Earth It’s been a decade now since Irish singer Andrew Hozier-Byrne first sprung to public attention with the debut single Take Me To Church, a song that showcased his extraordinary voice and made him a worldwide star. To be fair to Hozier, he’s never seemed at ease with cashing in on his success – his perfectionist nature means that Unreal Unearth is just his third album in nine years.

And there’s a lot to take in on this follow-up to 2019’s Wasteland Baby. It’s a dense, long album, which careers from one musical style to another – with Hozier sounding equally at home on each track thanks to that rich, soulful baritone vocal. There’s also a vague concept linking the songs together, with the album being inspired by Dante’s Nine Circles Of Hell, written during the pandemic, and featuring some tracks sung in Gaelic.

It’s not an inaccessible album though by any means – there’s an anthemic edge to even the darkest of his songs, and once the downbeat De Selby (Part 1) gives way to Part 2 of the same song, with an elastic bassline and some autotuned backing vocals, it seems as if he’s embraced funk. That’s followed by a full-on pop song in First Time, where Hozier’s vocals recall George Ezra at times.

Elsewhere, there’s some finger-picked acoustic guitar on I, Carrion (Icarian) and a big stadium anthem in Who We Are, which gives Hozier the showcase that his voice demands. It’s undeniable though, that at 16 tracks long and a 62 minute running time, it all feels a bit over-cooked. Like his fellow singers with impressive voices – Sam Smith, Rag & Bone Man, even Adele at times – sometimes the quality of the songs doesn’t quite match up to the strength of the vocal.

In fact, there’s arguably too many ideas stuffed into Unreal Unearth – the big orchestral strings of Son Of Nye sound like a great lost Bond theme, but it fails to kick into gear, while To Someone From A Warm Climate forgets to add a memorable melody to Hozier’s emoting over a piano. Anything But sounds bouncy and joyful, with some Afrobeat guitars adding an upbeat edge, but again the song fails to develop into much.

Yet there is an emotional pull to much of Unreal Unearth which does become genuinely compelling. The breakup track Francesca is an early highlight, with Hozier’s voice sometimes breaking with emotion as he sings that “Heaven is not fit to house a love like you and I”, while the Dante imagery is put to good use on Unknown/Nth, a tale of betrayal and loss of trust that belongs firmly on that Ninth Circle.

Eat Your Young may sound like a disco anthem ready to strut onto the dancefloor, but it’s slinky beats masks a politically savage indictment of the state of the world – “skinning the children for a war drum, put in front of the table, selling bombs and guns, it’s quicker and easier to eat your young”. More tracks with a focus and a bite like this would have been very welcome on Unreal Unearth.

As it is, Hozier’s third album is a album that is simply a bit too sprawling. It’s certainly great in parts, and that voice never fails to impress, but it becomes a bit too bloated to listen to in full over time.

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