the power of protest and soft romanticism on hozier’s wasteland, baby!

 
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There is no better summation of Hozier’s musical style than the lyrics, “There’s no plan / There’s no kingdom to come / I’ll be your man” from his highly anticipated second album, Wasteland, Baby!, released on March 1st. The effortless combination of existential dread, apocalyptic imagery, and unfiltered love and adoration dripping on every note and lyric of “No Plan” is completely on brand.

Likewise, so is the entirety of Wasteland, Baby!

Hozier is one of the rare artists with the ability ability to reinvent his previous success, like that of 2014's Hozier. The new tracks sound familiar and consistent with his past releases. “Nobody” reminds the listener of “Jackie and Wilson,” while  “To Noise Making (Sing)” sounds eerily like “Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene,” and “As It Was” recalls the earlier, “Work Song.”

At the same time, though, Hozier has allowed his style to shift as he has gained musical experience. Unlike similar artists—like James Bay and his radically-different oft-criticized Electric LightWasteland, Baby! sounds exactly as a listener would expect it to sound; it incorporates the same deep and contemplative lyrics that fans got to know on his debut album, but seamlessly incorporates his new abilities.

Perhaps one of the strongest aspects of the new album is that Hozier still celebrates the roots and power of protest. During his four-year hiatus, he split his time between humanitarian projects and the new musical endeavors showcased on Wasteland, Baby! and his September EP, Nina Cried Power. The lead single of that EP (“Nina Cried Power”) opens Wasteland, Baby! and serves as a reference to American singer and activist Nina Simone. Featuring famed vocalist Mavis Staples, the song lauds the impact of other acclaimed artists such as Billie Holiday, Curtis Mayfield, John Lennon, B.B. King, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gay, Bob Dylan, and more. Hozier’s recent activism—causes like affordable housing, abortion rights, and restitutions for the crimes of the Irish Catholic Church—make the song even more powerful and heartfelt.

This spirit of protest and political critique is nothing new for Hozier, considering the focus of his 2014 debut and smash hit “Take Me to Church,” a song that topped the charts for months and was often cited as one of the biggest songs of the year. With his first hit, Hozier immediately defined himself by a scathing critique and frustration with the Catholic Church and its conservative attitude towards homosexuality, and made it clear that he was filled with a fervor ready to shake up the status quo in his home country, the deeply Catholic nation of Ireland.

Yet, despite these strong themes of protest embedded in Hozier’s work, Wasteland, Baby! also shines on its slow, more contemplative love songs. In typical Hozier fashion, “Shrike” is an elaborate metaphor for lost love that references a bird known colloquially as a “butcherbird,” which nests in sharp environments and devours the prey impaled on the spikes.

Similarly, the final track, “Wasteland, Baby!” compares falling in love to the end of the world, singing, “All the fear and the fire of the end of the world / Happens each time a boy falls in love with a girl.” The gentleness with which he sings about such an innocent topic contrasts dramatically to the aforementioned “Nina Cried Power” and yet, opening the album with such power and anger, and closing with such softness, somehow works.

Wasteland, Baby! was a highly anticipated follow-up album, but if the initial online reaction is any indication, Hozier’s hiatus only strengthened his work. He delivered a strong and thoughtful album that runs the gambit of tones and emotions, while still following a cohesive theme and style. Hozier makes it clear that he has only improved as his career has grown.