Friday, October 10, 2014

album review: 'hozier' by hozier

Let's talk about religion. As I've mentioned in the past, I'm Catholic, mostly practicing but to say my faith gets complicated from there is understating it. One thing I'm quite certain of is that my faith is my business, and nobody else's, and if religion operated on that level on a broader scale, we as a society would be much better off. 

And yet unsurprisingly, there's a whole subsection of the music industry devoted to music with strong Christian themes, a subsection of the industry that tends to get relentlessly snubbed, panned, or outright ignored by critics. And to some extent that's not a good thing - when you shut down the critical discourse and artistic conversation, art developed in that environment tends to develop insular tendencies without the slightest element of quality control. But to be fair to myself and other critics, it's not like we don't have good reasons for ignoring that particular subsection of music - putting aside the issue that elements of the fandom immediately perceive criticism of the music as criticism of not just the artist, but the religion as well, the production and instrumentation is often substandard, or in some cases outright derivative of other non-religious acts. And lyrically... look, religion has inspired some fantastic artists to write classic songs - Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, the list could go on - but in that particular subgenre can fall into two distinctive traps. The first is that much of the material is not willing to directly comment or criticize the faith that underlies it, which can lead to a serious lack of drama - after all, if the answer always can be provided by deus ex machina, you really undercut the tension, which tends to lead to the music coming across at best placid and at worst self-satisfied. And the second problem is evangelicalism - for a critic, it can get exasperating when the music's sole purpose is to preach or go political in a way that lacks nuance, especially when their answers loop back to a holy book that should be read allegorically and metaphorically rather than literally.

What this also means is that, with rare exception, most Christian music never gets play on mainstream radio or the charts, and everyone tends to be okay with that. But at the same time, it's been a generally accepted rule that songs that are outright anti-religion don't tend to get a lot of airplay either - because let's face it, spitting in the face of people's faith without a certain degree of nuance is just as exasperating. So you can believe that I was surprised to see a song titled 'Take Me To Church' creeping up the lower half of the charts, a song fairly blunt in its 'losing my religion' metaphors when linking back to his complicated relationship. Now let me stress that this is a strong way to immediately grab my attention - strong single, intriguing content, doing something new - so I decided to check out his self-titled album. What did I find?

Well, I definitely wasn't expecting this. Granted, 'Take Me To Church' was the sort of intricate song driven by visceral poetry that I didn't know what to expect, but Hozier's self-titled album was a really welcome surprise, drenched in old school grimy blues rock and soul and even gospel and wearing its love for Tom Waits proudly - which is a little uncanny coming from an Irish singer-songwriter. It's an attraction to traditionally American music that recalls a lot of Nick Cave's cultural fascination with Westerns, gospel, and southern gothic iconography. And if you know me and I'm making comparisons to Nick Cave, we're talking about an act with talent - make no mistake, Hozier is the sort of act that immediately pushes a lot of great buttons with me - sonic callbacks to organically textured old-school genres, and yet brought up to date with songwriting with modern framing. Oh, and if you can't tell, it's goddamn awesome, the sort of dark bluesy grime that that isn't afraid to go to the black recesses of human passion and claw out something many would shy away from admitting they have.

Let's start with Hozier himself - and let me stress he's the sort of singer that immediately grips me. A rich low and mid-range, unafraid to break into a full-throated howl when necessary to amp up the visceral emotion - yeah, pretty much many of the same words I'd use to describe Nick Cave's vocals, but that's where the comparisons end. Where Cave's vocals were more raw, influenced by punk and post-punk, Hozier has an air of shattered, hastily reassembled dignity brought upon by soul-baring vulnerability and the pure desperation of youth, almost reminiscent of James Blake but with a much deeper brand of tarnished soul. If there's any slickness or polish, it's an old-school veneer that's plainly transparent or viciously subverted by the song like on 'From Eden', where he quite literally frames himself as the snake in the Garden! This is the sort of voice that lends itself to tortured or at least complicated framing effortlessly, to the point where the otherwise gorgeous 'In A Week' featuring Karen Cowley's perfect matching alto can't help but feel a little underweight with its emotional stakes - even though it's a love song between two corpses! I'm a little bit more mixed on the vocal effects - there are definitely moments where the reverb is a little heavy, but it often completely fits the atmosphere and I'm a complete sucker for a well-executed gospel choir, especially surrounding darker subject matter. 

This takes us to the instrumentation and production - and if I were to have any issues, they'd probably come here. Much of the album feels cavernous and deep and somewhat indebted to Jack White's most recent record Lazaretto, drenched with the sort of textures I love in this brand of blues and soul and even elements of country... and thus whenever he drifts a little closer to the lighter, more acoustic textures of folk, it feels a bit out of place. Not that it's bad - he's got a deft touch for lyricism and framing that makes him a natural fit for folk music, and I love how he brings in backing vocals and subtle musical flourishes like how you can hear the birds outside the collapsed hotel where he recorded 'Cherry Wine' - but it lacks some of the old-school character and flair that makes Hozier's debut so powerfully memorable. And what I love is that the instrumental character could have so easily succumbed to the heavy, percussion-and-reverb-laiden production that's so popular and yet Hozier makes the right choice by bringing the melody straight to the forefront, letting the bass and guitars growl with great texture, the low piano keys intensify the darkness, and the organ add that perfect accent. And while the gothic intensity of 'Take Me To Church' is powerful, it's probably not even the best on the album: the lonely blues spike on 'Angel of Small Death & The Codeine Scene' that breaks into a sizzling solo; the rollicking rhythm 'n blues guitar of 'Jackie and Wilson' complete with back chorus; the elegant upright bass and overall old-school romantic vibe of 'Someone New' that belies the sleazy vibe of the song; the great smoky noir guitar lick on 'To Be Alone' with explosively punchy drums and rising swell during the pre-chorus; the organ and fantastic Spanish guitar interlude on 'From Eden', the achingly slow heaviness of 'Work Song' with the hollow percussion, the ominous piano and drums balancing against the mournful strings on 'Foreigner's God', and of course the thick, borderline country guitar snarl of 'I Will Come Back' that just works for me! If I were to take the smallest issue in the production, it's that the guitars could have had just the slightest bit more bite to match the organ and backing vocals, but considering how well this album evokes an old-school sound and yet makes it feel incredibly modern, it's a small complaint indeed!

And this takes us to lyrics... and if you're going to take anything away from this sort of debut, the lyrics should be it, because Hozier makes a stark and vivid impact here. Not only is his writing completely sound from a technical side, it delves into visceral, striking wordplay that might shock on first listen for its rawness, but it completely fits. This is an album draped in corroded religious metaphors and noir's grim acceptance of death that will nevertheless draw howls as he rages going into that good night - and considering he uses most of this iconography as symbols for relationships, it's easy to think of it as hyperbolic or overwrought. Hell, 'Take Me To Church' describes a imbalanced relationship and infuses it with undercurrents of Catholic guilt with the girl representing his goddess - and yet Hozier is smart enough to frame his choices as made for love and highlight the explicit parallel between his love and faith - two implacable emotions that defy higher reason. That might as well be the biggest theme of this album, delving into the psychology of why people crave relationships that become power struggles or stay with partners who abuse or neglect them - and Hozier has two secret weapons on his side, the first being perfect framing that is not afraid to show both partners equally and the second being unflinching, painful honesty. 

And also to his credit, he creates a number of vivid situations to explore these themes. The one night stand of 'Angel Of Small Death & The Codeine Scene' where he wanders alone in confusion after sex and wonders why did it. 'Someone New' inverts the relationship and places him in the role of a serial womanizer who always craves someone new and is never satisfied. 'To Be Alone' is a track unafraid to highlight his own hypocrisy as he sings about leaving the club scene with a depressed girl who he exploits even as he recoils at his touch. Hell, 'From Eden' casts him as a Satan figure outright for pursuing his desires, and the mirrored tracks 'Work Song' and 'Like Real People Do' finds Hozier pledging his love saying that if buried he will still claw his way out of the dirt for her - and then he raises the point that she wouldn't be digging in the dark if she wasn't just like him in her own way. It's very telling that the most joyous or contented relationship songs are either a wistful fantasy on 'Jackie and Wilson' or when both lovers are dead on 'In A Week'. When Hozier is singing about 'real love', it's the sort that wrenches the worst instincts of both partners forward, showing how they have the capacity to do terrible things to each other simply through mutual vulnerability, all done in the name of love. And it makes complete sense, especially when placed in stark parallel with faith and religion, which asks a person to bare their soul to a higher power for judgment, another force for which people will do terrible things. And the omnipresent question across this album is whether it's worth it - and that's why I like the inclusion of 'Sedated' and 'Cherry Wine' on this album. Neither are songs I consider all that great, but they highlight the heady feeling of human nature's addiction to those feelings, and how they're willing to go through the pain their lovers inflict upon them all the same, it's that potent.

Now let's be blunt - thematically, that's a tough theme to anchor a record, because you're making the assumption that the music can convey that attraction - and I guarantee for a lot of listeners, that won't be the case. They'll find the relationships melodramatic and overwrought, the religious imagery lacking in weight, the blues, soul and gospel elements an old-fashioned cover... but then again, this is an old-fashioned record, both in sound and themes. The starkly sketched morals, the callbacks to noir, the emphasis on emotion and passion over reason from the human animal, these are not exactly modern notions. And yet like St. Vincent's most recent album, Hozier's self-titled record highlights that backwards step as a quintessential human step, and then gives it the emotional stakes that St. Vincent occasionally lacked. In other words, this album is fantastic, a gripping, intensely textured and written record that is a jawdropping debut that gets a 9/10 from me and a high recommendation. Yeah, some of it might appeal to my own complicated religious feelings more than most, but it still doesn't mean this album isn't amazing. Seriously, check this out - you won't regret it.

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