Remember Hozier? It’s hard not to. For the past five years, his has been one of the names most often brought up in conversations along the lines of, When on Earth is that artist’s next album going to be here?
Five years isn’t the most extreme gap in the grand scheme of things, but the eponymous debut album of the Irish singer-songwriter, formally known as Andrew Hozier-Byrne, shook the world in a way that few debut albums are privileged to do. Hozier’s unique, seamless, heart-driven blend of folk, soul, rock and blues has left an indelible mark on the musical world, sparking many imitators but few who have risen to meet his level of talent and vision. A follow-up, naturally, was and has always been a tall order.
Luckily, Wasteland, Baby! delivers on every front and then some. It’s a comprehensive dive (album-cover-pun intended) into some of the depths of Hozier’s personality and values left unexplored on Hozier. Hozier gave us tender affection, sardonic accusation, campy friendship and druggy poetry. The new sophomore record builds on these strengths with its offerings of well-considered lyricism, thoughtful tribute, immersive rock and thoughtful, referential appreciation of music itself.
One of the traits that makes Wasteland, Baby! shine is the fact that Hozier knows how to compartmentalize. He’s aware that he’s borrowing from the libraries of many different genres, and although he doesn’t let this awareness guide him too strongly or box him in, he does use it to concentrate his genre fluencies in the areas where they’ll serve him the most effectively. His penchant for roiling rock surfaces on “No Plan” and “Dinner & Diatribes,” while other tracks like “Shrike,” “Almost (Sweet Music)” and “Wasteland, Baby!” recall his folksy sensibilities. A thread of natural expertise runs beneath everything, reaffirming Hozier’s position as a virtual chameleon among the adjacent and overlapping worlds of the genres he’s choosing to explore.
In many ways, the album as a whole adds up to a love letter to music. It opens, of course, with “Nina Cried Power,” the title track and lead single off of last September’s EP, the official mark of Hozier’s first release since 2014. An earth-shaking collaboration with Mavis Staples, “Nina Cried Power” is a tribute to the anthemic and, yes, powerful protest work of musicians like Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, B.B. King, Bob Dylan and more. A thank you note turned up several notches, the opener shouts out Staples while benefiting from her inimitable vocals, and it places Hozier in a distinct and personable position: His music has never been anywhere near meek, but it can still be modest and grounded in a way that helps it locate its place amid a much vaster expanse of influence, history and musical mastery.
“Almost (Sweet Music)” is an apt follow-up, thanking musical masters like Duke Ellington and Chet Baker while providing a suitable segue into Hozier’s later explorations of his personal relationships and the ways in which they intersect with music in general. This is perhaps one of the most consistent veins characterizing the rest of the album. In addition to explicitly illustrating his artistic appreciations in songs like the celebratory, yet moderately low-key, “To Noise Making (Sing),” he demonstrates their existence in tandem with his own more personal preoccupations. His fusion of various alternative genres with odes to the past and present, and lyrics so good you could read them without the music and still fall in love, is by turns seductive, introspective, modern and wholly mythological.
The more personal elements of Hozier’s characteristics as an artist that made his debut so successful — his unapologetic anger, his ready weirdness and affinity for careful, unique lyrics that veer between the sensitive and the violent — are all still there on this new album, just engineered along different paths, which is the main crux of what makes Wasteland, Baby! so fitting and interesting. These 14 tracks are the proof we may have been waiting for, whether consciously or unconsciously, that Hozier hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s been here all along, thinking and listening and working and writing, and waiting, like the shrike, for the perfect time to pounce. True to the album cover indeed, Hozier is ready to submerge us, to tug us along the depths of a place fully understood by no one and illuminate something for us amid a shipwreck. We should be so lucky.