On his rich debut album, Hozier blends deep South R&B with mythical Celtic folk, slipping in a lick of Motown heartache when least expected. Gospel arrangements lift his mature vocals, coated in gravitas and doomed warnings, as he plays from the altar of his own heaven-shunned church, rousing his congregation with bluesy prayers and demands for forgiveness straight from Van Morrison’s soul. The exorcism of Hozier’s sins only dip when soft memories and quiet regrets are allowed space to settle, in heartfelt odes that would have brought Otis Redding to his knees, before then rising once more to call out for love from the top of a storm-drenched hill.
The 24-year-old, who honed his vocals as a member of the Irish choral group Anúna, has made an album about the torture of causing one’s own heartbreak, and then walking a thousand miles back to the girl he loves to earn forgiveness. This is heavy stuff, but Hozier delivers with sincerity and a poetic maturity through his dense lyrics. Biblical calls for love and redemption, musings on death and decay and straight up battle cries all combine to form a manifesto for lovelorn sinners.
The opening lines of “Take Me to Church” set the tone, “My lover’s got humour / She’s the giggle at a funeral / Knows everybody’s disapproval / I should’ve worshipped her sooner”. Sung over the dark gospel blues of a death march on its way to heaven to tear the façade down, Hozier spits, “I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife”. On “Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene”, Hozier sets off on a road trip where clapping hands, scratching steel guitar strings and church organs accompany his doomed soul. “Jackie and Wilson” is an early nod to his channelling of Van Morrison’s bluesy Celtic soul. “Someone New” sounds like Hozier confessing his wandering ways to the Temptations, while “To Be Alone” takes the album back into Americana road trip territory with us as his merry band of fallen angels following behind, our black shoes covered in desert dust.
“From Eden” sees the Four Tops putting their arms around young Hozier as he realises through his own tortured biblical ponderings — “I slithered here from Eden, just to sit outside your door” — that this is a journey as much about finding himself as it is about finding the girl. Taking a darker leap into death, “In a Week” sees Hozier sing from the grave while insects feed on his flesh, while “Sedated” feels coated with warning; as lyrics about creeping shadows, poison, and personal decay are given rise over a bed of tinkling piano and gospel choir melodies. In “Like Real People Do”, an acoustic amble that departs from the Americana desert and into an Irish meadow, Hozier displays previously unheard softness in his vocals as he pleads with his sweetheart to place her sweet lips on his.
In “It Will Come Back”, tambourines tongue-kiss a deviant return to the blues as a glimpse of Hozier’s darkness rears its head once more. Before the album’s last track, “Cherry Wine”, an acoustic, intimate and apologetic closing of the book, has Hozier finally earning his yearned-for redemption, “I’m all but washed, in the tide of her breathing”.
This is a brave, weighty and heartfelt debut from a hefty new songwriter. Hozier has arrived.