When Hozier’s song “Take Me to Church” put the Irish folk-soul singer on the map in 2014, he told Rolling Stone that he had recorded the song’s original demo in his attic in a fit of inspiration, and that his performance in that private session had been so powerful his vocal stayed in the finished version. That kind of instinctual grandeur was a key selling point for the song, and the artist. “Take Me to Church” became a smash hit, transforming Hozier from a little-known singer-songwriter to a global star. Now, with Unreal Unearth, he continues to show how far he’s come since those attic days, building on his success with an LP that follows a to-hell-and-back personal journey full of greed, insatiability, desire, and euphoria. The result is his best album yet.
Hozier leavens indie-rock songwriting with sensual funk and soul. As always, he’s deep in his feelings: “No closer could I be to God/Or why he would do what he’s done” he sings on “De Selby (Part 1),” introducing a Dante-an literary theme he’ll return to at points on the album. On “Unknown / Nth” he sings, “You know the distance never made a difference to me/I swam a lake of fire, I’d have walked across the floor of any sea.” Of course, Hozier isn’t the first pop artist to use this kind of imagery. But his literary allusions never feel clichéd or heavy-handed. Instead, they serve as a structure for breathtaking lyrics that give each song a deep sense of discovery and familiarity. “De Selby (Part 2)” has a tidal intensity, dripping lust and desire in a way that’s striking in its blatant honesty. “I’d still know you,” Hozier croons, “Not being shown you/I only need the working of my hand.” The eroticism only deepens with “First Time,” as he sings about a kiss that feels like drinking dry the river Lethem, then undercuts that sense of ecstasy with intimations of mortality.
Folk ballads “I, Carrion (Icarian)” and “To Someone From a Warm Climate (Uiscefhuaraithe)” feature Hozier’s signature Irish brogue and aching sweetness: “But it came easy,” Hozier whispers on the latter, describing how a lover allows him to ignore the destruction around him. “Natural as another leg around you in the bed.” Even songs so clearly destined for radio play, like the angsty rock ballad “Francesca” and “Damage Gets Done,” an inspired duet with Brandi Carlile, feel elevated and integral to the thematic through line of the album.
It’s been four years since Hozier’s last album, 2019’s Wasteland, Baby, a wait that’s only allowed the singer’s myth to grow. To his ardent fans, he’s less a normal musician than an ethereal creature that emerges from a bog, shares a sacred song, then vanishes to go flit through the woods. It’s an image that’s been aided by the isolated feel of Hozier’s most famous work, like the attic-born “Take Me to Church,” or Wasteland, Baby’s “Shrike,” a solitary, soaring ode to a transformative relationship. But Unreal Unearth pushes against Hozier’s loner image by being his first album with co-writers, including producer Jeff Gitelman and writer Jennifer Decilveo. The collaborative process seems to have refined his sound; no song feels like a first draft, and the music’s strong production helps smooth and tighten his innate lyricism.
This isn’t just Hozier singing about making it through hell. Unreal Unearth sets its sights on something much more difficult, excavating what infernos can feel like when pain is what people want, how close torment can come to an aching love, and what punishment looks like when its victim doesn’t deserve it. Hozier doesn’t just succeed in exploring that dark emotional world; his painful ascent makes the listener immediately want to climb with him. Even harder, he successfully delivers a third album that doesn’t shy away from any topic, even when he doesn’t have the answers. Hozier isn’t just growing as an artist, he’s being reborn.