Thursday, March 7, 2019

album review: 'wasteland, baby!' by hozier

I remember vividly covering Hozier in 2014.

I remember knowing him only for 'Take Me To Church', a swampy soul song with a prominent overwritten gothic streak to match his massive, howling voice, owing obvious debts to blues and soul but also showing an intuitive grasp of the texture to make it stick. In other words, there was no way he wasn't going to become a one-hit wonder, especially in the mid-2010s where the mainstream was caught in transition between garage rock duos and rollicking indie flair and the over-polished pop rock that dominates now, but I had some hope that his self-titled debut would connect, especially as his songwriting had too much unique flair to be discounted. I went in with middling expectations...

And left blown out of the water - and indeed, Hozier set such a high bar for his brand of blues rock and soul that it's not surprising few even tried to follow him. Not only was that self-titled debut one of the best albums of 2014, but it also produced 'Jackie & Wilson', which to this day remains my favourite song of that year. And going back to that album years later I find myself awestruck how well it holds up - the huge low-end smolder balancing terrific melodic hooks, the rich diversity of tones, and that's before you got Hozier's brand of overwritten but understated melodrama, drenched in the iconography of the past but refreshingly modern in its sentiments. I place that self-titled project in the same category as an album like Dolls Of Highland by Kyle Craft in a fusion of textured, old-school rock with contemporary ideas, but where Craft was able to crank out a strong follow-up last year with Full Circle Nightmare, Hozier was more deliberate - mostly because he had the flexibility to rely on a monster hit and the frankly stunning number albums he sold in an era where albums don't sell. So while I was cooler than most on his EP follow-up last year Nina Cried Power - really damn good, just not quite great - I had high hopes for this one. I was a little less enthused to discover that he included a few songs from that EP on this project - and yet not my favourite from that project 'Moment's Silence (Common Tongue)', which was on my short list of songs that nearly made my top 50 songs of 2018 - but hey, we've been waiting five damn years for this, so what did we get from Wasteland, Baby!?

So I was prepared to come into this review guns ablazing in retaliation at Pitchfork for the disinterested hatchet job they did in their review, which seemed to miss most of Hozier's fundamental appeal and brand it as just a project to chase another hit, which given this project was released a comfortable five years since 'Take Me To Church' didn't seem to have much support. And then I heard the album... and on some level, I at least understood where they might have been coming from, because Wasteland, Baby! is absolutely a step down from the self-titled album, and mostly seems rooted in choices that take Hozier further from the sounds that made him such a powerful presence. And even then I wouldn't say it's him who is the biggest problem, especially when you can tell the label is now stuck with the impossible task of matching a surprise album that moved over a million units - in the 2010s.

So that raises the ugly question of whether this is a 'sophomore slump'... and again, I'm not sure I can precisely say that, at least when it comes to Hozier himself. In term of sheer range and smoldering power, he's an incredible force of personality, able to balance the rough-edged bluesy smolder to a full-throated soul bellow to a husky folk timbre - as a sheer talent behind the microphone, there are few who can match his presence or versatility, and while there might be a few points on this project where the vocal pickup can feel a shade too lo-fi or muddy in the layering thanks to a bit too much reverb, that's always been part of this atmosphere and presence, adding an organic, earthy swell even to the songs where the production doesn't stick the landing.

And we might as well dig in deep to this, because if I were to highlight my first major issue with this project, it comes in the production. Unlike the self-titled release which was entirely produced by Rob Kirwan, this album has the majority of credits from British mega-producer Markus Dravs, and that meant a departure from the heavy, smoldering grooves that balanced their low-end roil with blues rock crunch and sizzling organs - you know, the whole damn reason why Hozier stood out in the first place! Instead, in the classic example of utterly missing the point that too much music both indie and otherwise has suffered this decade, the drums and percussion are given more presence and higher placement in the mix, which forces the melodies both in the multi-tracked vocals, guitars, or organs to compete with clattering handclaps and louder beats while neglecting the basslines that provide the real connective tissue, especially as that percussion and bass isn't as cleanly blended. It leads to mixes that are more choppy and staccato, which not only don't flatter Hozier's smoother voice as much, but also means the melodic hooks are stuck competing against them and the comparisons to the mainstream folk rock and blues that Hozier had mostly sidestepped are sadly more pertinent. And I blame Markus Dravs for this because he did much of the same to Kings Of Leon back in 2016 and Florence + The Machine in 2015 - it might have worked for the stomp of Mumford & Sons eight years ago or Arcade Fire in 2010, but it's not working now! And what's all the more exasperating is that if you're looking for the thicker blues rock smolder that gave the last album so much momentum... well, most of that isn't as prominent either. Take 'No Plan', one of the few cuts with a striking bassline, but it's stuck opposite a garage rock sizzle in the lead guitar, much punchier snares and kickdrums, and more tacked on liquid flourishes in the guitar and strings, with little blending to cultivate a real sense of atmosphere, and that's before that gooey synth drops over the bridge. I'll at least try to give Ariel Rechtshaid some credit on the two songs he produces for a slightly more lo-fi bluesy smolder on 'Nobody', but the percussion is the most prominent element in the mix, and the ramshackle approach taken to 'To Noise Making (Sing)' just doesn't work, even if a more slapdash approach is the point. Even the songs I really love from this album, like the slow-burn 'Movement' that I'm convinced is one trap remix away from being a killer strip-club song has the percussion as the most dominant feature, and that also goes for 'Almost (Sweet Music)', 'Talk', and especially 'Sunlight' - a shame, because 'Sunlight' probably has the best hook on the album!

Now let me stress this isn't precisely a deal-breaker, mostly because when Hozier is ramping up raw intensity there are few that can match the precise timbre of what he delivers. As much as I was initially irked that 'Nina Cried Power' and 'Shrike' were included on the album, the former is still a really damn good song and the more developed arrangement behind 'Shrike' is absolutely an improvement. And when Hozier steps more towards a darker acoustic folk tone like on 'As It Was' or something as ribald as 'Dinner & Diatribes', I hear traces of the darker, sleazier side of Hozier that made the first album so damn potent - hell, 'Movement' falls in a similar category. But this is where we have to get into the content and a thematic pivot that feels more accessible... but also less interesting. Hozier himself has described the album as a little more optimistic and hopeful, a wry smile in desperate circumstances, a title track trying to find moments of love amidst an apocalypse, aiming to be a little warmer than the twisted, very Irish-Catholic darkness of the self-titled project... and what's frustrating is that my favourite Hozier song 'Jackie & Wilson' works on a similar brand of hope, so why isn't quite registering as deeply for me? Well, part of it might be contrast in that there just aren't as many dark or murky tracks on this album - he's not referencing angels of small death or rape culture on this project - but it's also because Hozier is framing himself as more of an optimistic figure; a track like 'To Noise Making (Sing)' is the sort of aspirational moment that not only feels thuddingly on the nose, but reflecting a much brighter demeanor that's just not as complex or compelling or interesting, mostly because I keep expecting a curveball that never comes. He's still a great songwriter in terms of structuring meter and nuance - although like with Marianas Trench he's got a penchant for just repeating words on a hook to fill up space, a shortcut he doesn't need to take - I just wish he leaned into the human frailty and failings that add so much texture, because when he does we get great moments. I love how 'Nobody' paints the messy flaws of both partners and how that can often be the most attractive quality of them both, the messy stumble home on 'As It Was' where the damnation is for his neglect is around the corner, how easy he steps into the incubus role on 'Talk', the transgression of sexual release across 'Be', and especially on 'Dinner & Diatribes' which is a pretty damn great song about blowing bad parties to go screw. Honestly, there's a part of me that wishes there was a little more thematic cohesion here - perhaps that added slice of insight into the irony of people so flawed and sinful finding solace amidst larger calamity as worth saving - but Hozier's taking it as a given and I'm mostly okay with that, although for as much of a music and classics nerd as he is, I wish the references and symbolism slid a little more cleanly into this project.

But as a whole... look, I wanted to love this album, but the truth is that you can tell with more hands and eyes here there was more of a push to make this accessible to a wider audience - which is such a label move because it combines the delusion that the existing fans won't hear the difference and that this is the only way to build growth rather than build on the strengths you already have! Granted, Hozier's more optimistic direction was going there already, but with a richer and more balanced sonic palette it would have registered far better and it's exasperating that so much of it was compromised - I blame Markus Dravs most for this, but Hozier moved enough units and took enough time that he could have pushed back if he wanted. As it is, I'm thinking a very strong 7/10 and a recommendation - hell, if you liked 'Take Me To Church' and are looking for a point to hop onboard, this might be the ticket - but I hope Hozier is able to realize his strengths on the next one - and that it doesn't take another five years to get here. I dunno, we'll see.

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