2014 was a stellar year for the Irish musician Andrew Hozier-Bryne. Known professionally under the mononym Hozier, the artist saw his eponymous debut album achieve global fame. After the release of the EP Nina Cried Power in 2016 and a few tantalizing singles scattered throughout 2018, Hozier prepared his audience for the release of Wasteland, Baby! The album is in part a musical reflection on the artistic and cultural influences informing the singer-songwriter. Wasteland, Baby!‘s crux, however, is akin to a memoir used to record Hozier’s clear and personal ruminations.
Wasteland, Baby! commences with the political anthem “Nina Cried Power“. A salutation to protest music and the overlap between art and activism, the first line is the rousing declaration, “It’s not the waking, it’s the rising.” The track centralizes the legacies of change agents including Nina Simone, Billie Holliday, Curtis Mayfield, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie. Mavis Staples lends her vocals to “Nina Cried Power” to create a phenomenal effect. The variety of performers Hozier references is a testament to music’s ability to reach across genre and era to kindle political action. Hozier intentionally uses the performer’s legacy to inspire action and disrupt apathy. This is the poignant reminder that the work these artist-activist set in motion still needs redressing and enacting within this contemporary moment. As an opener, “Nina Cries Power” is an inspirational triumph concertizing the single’s place in the history of protest music.
Hozier uses Wasteland, Baby! to capture deep personal sentiment. On “Almost (Sweet Music)“, Hozier provides a glimpse into his personal journey between the two full-length studio albums. He summons the exhaustion he felt when he sings, “I came in from the outside / Burned out from a joyride / She likes to roll here in my ashes anyway.” “As It Was” begins with only vocals and guitar thereby illustrating the fullness and richness of Hozier’s timbre. The introductory piano imbues the track with a sense of vulnerability. This leads to the singer’s emotional exposure especially when he realizes, “Before the otherness came / And I knew its name / The drug, the dark / The light, the flame.” Wasteland, Baby!‘s primary focus is on the emotional and introspective, situating the album’s anthemic opener as an outlier.
Hozier relies heavily on popular culture references to position Wasteland, Baby! as an artifact delineating from enduring artistic significance. In addition to the list of musicians inspiring “Nina Cries Power”, Chet Baker and Duke Ellington are mentioned in “Almost (Sweet Music)”. In “Nobody” Hozier compares romantic affect to dancing “real slow with Rockettes, on dodgy molly”. Mentioning MDMA, a drug described as causing euphoria, is Hozier’s hyperbolic contrast to his announcement “no love like your love”. “Movement” even drops a biblical connection to “Jonah on the ocean”. It is also in this track where Hozier sings, “You’re less Polunin leaping / Or Fred Astaire in sequins, honey.” The dancers illustrate the summons of love as an awe-inspiring dance. Using Astaire’s genius to represent profound love is a keen analogy, testifying to Hozier’s songwriting abilities.
Unfortunately, the reference to Sergei Polunin, the Ukrainian-born ballet dancer, does not hold up. Recently, Polunin evoked furor on social media after posting a series of homophobic, sexist, and fatphobic comments on his Instagram. Beyond ballet, Polunin gained wider popular notoriety after releasing a YouTube video featuring him dancing to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church”. Hozier’s video for the single is lauded as a visual protestation to the normalization of hate crimes resulting from Russia’s homophobic legislation and discourses. Polunin clearly missed the video’s true meaning or is comfortable reveling in hypocrisy. None of this is Hozier’s fault, though. In all fairness, Polunin’s social media firestorm is recent, his despicable comments posted well past the time Hozier wrote and recorded the song. But the mention of Polunin in “Movement” does render consideration of whether an artist is culpable when their subject transgresses.
Stylistically, Wasteland, Baby! is both experimental and engaging. The guitar in “No Plan” melds Velvet Underground’s delicacy to Led Zeppelin’s cacophony. Booker T. Jones lends his formidable organ playing on several tracks, including “Be” and “Sunshine”, endowing the album with a distinct funk feel. Much as his previous releases, Wasteland, Baby!’s musical strength is due to Hozier’s ability to enmesh his gospel, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll influences.
After a four-year lull, Hozier needed Wasteland, Baby! to recapture the energy created by his previous releases then further light the artist’s skill and vision of his craft. Wasteland, Baby! certainly delivers while edifying the artist as an impactful voice in the art and activism sphere.