Last September – over four years since the release of his self-titled album – Andrew Hozier-Byrne released four new songs on his Nina Cried Power EP.
The worldwide success of the debut album took most people, not least its maker, by surprise. Not for Hozier the usual success by stealth route, but rather a sharp incline from zero to hero.
The blues may be his passion and primary influence, but no straight blues act amasses billions of online streams. Rather, adding pop hooks and straining R’n’B, soul and gospel rhythms into his songs, he achieved what many thought he couldn’t. It helped that Hozier was – despite the shock of sudden fame – unaffected and articulate as well as socio-politically astute.
Wasteland, Baby! is his return and – despite a hiccup or two, without which would have made for a five-star record – it's a very welcome one. Prepare to know most if not all of these tracks by the time the sun starts to warm us again.
Track by track
Nina Cried Power: We know this one already from its steady airing over the past few months, but from the first track Hozier fuses his righteous political anger ("It is the bringing of the line, it is the baring of the rhyme, it's not the waking it's the rising") with what you can only call a "tune".
Almost (Sweet Music): The first of six soft, folksy songs on the album, on initial listen this seems slight – lyrically, at least, with Hozier telling a story via song titles and referencing famous jazz musicians such as Chet Baker, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane – until the melody is lifted by a multivoiced choir bursting straight out of the Pearly Gates.
Movement: As the title hints, this is Hozier in sensual quiet-loud-quiet mode. A beautiful song, with vivid lyrics ("You are the rite of movement, its reasoning made lucid and cool. And though it's no improvement, when you move I'll move") and a "smooth operator" tunefulness that will surely cause a baby boom by Christmas.
No Plan: The first glitch; No Plan is a sluggish, average blues song that would have benefitted from added urgency and better lyrics. Clocking in at almost six minutes, it is also the longest track on the album. Worse still, it sounds like something you shouldn't hear on an all-important second album: filler.
Nobody: A giddy, choppy, whooping blues delight, with really smart lyrics ("I'd be appalled if I saw you ever try to be a saint, I wouldn't fall for someone I thought couldn't misbehave") and an even sharper melodic uplift, this is the sound of musicians having a ball, and then relaxing into the afterglow.
To Noise Making (Sing): What a really clever soul/gospel song this is – a songwriter tipping the hat to finding your voice and using it to the best of your ability, whatever the response. "You don't have to sing it nice, but honey sing it strong. At best, you find a little remedy, at worst, the world will sing along."
As It Was: Delicate melody lines are infiltrated by a tense, foreboding midsection in an elegant song that sounds like Nick Drake if he had scribbled down lyrics after watching Season 1 of The Handmaid's Tale. Hozier sings of a rural utopia ("muddy and foxgloved") disrupted by "the otherness… the dark… the shame". Untypically downbeat but very impressive.
Shrike: Another perfectly paced slow song, and one that references the folk baroque output of UK singer-songwriters such as Bert Jansch, Davey Graham and John Renbourn. Informed by raw, naturalistic imagery (the title refers to a songbird that skewers its prey on thorns – let us not draw any direct analogies here), Hozier delivers a serene masterpiece.
Talk Refined: An unhurried, morose blues that – by way of the legend of lovers Orpheus and Eurydice – cautiously celebrates sexual love. An intuitively shrewd but crucially not deceptive lyric ("I won't deny I've got in my mind now all the things we could do. So I'll try to talk refined for fear that you find out how I'm imagining you") carries the song to a different level.
Be: Hozier casually plays the political card without dispensing platitudes. Referencing present world chaos (refugees, nuclear threat, governmental turpitude), he aligns same with a chugging blues/rock tune that will surely make the ground quake when amped up for gigs.
Dinner & Diatribes: A four-to-the-floor blues/rock song that comes across as weak-kneed and forced after the potency of the previous track. Below average and lyrically the least interesting – the most ineffective track on the album?
Would That I: A cracker of a song that starts off as a close cousin of Shrike ("True that love in withdrawal was the weeping of me, that the sound of the saw must be known by the tree"), yet quickly transforms into a harmony-driven, gospel-tinged stomper.
Sunlight: A gospel/blues call to arms for those that just like to sing the chorus; this is a weak song, often too repetitive for no apparent reason other than to raise the temperature in the room.
Wasteland, Baby!: He can rock out with the boisterousness of the blues all he wants, but Hozier's forte is with songs such as this. It shares with Almost, As it Was, and Shrike elemental imagery that touches on the reality of world problems ("When the stench of the sea and the absence of green are the death of all things that are seen and unseen") and the intimacy of love. It shares also a gentle folksy vibe that is the epitome of mellow. A splendid song to perfectly end the album.