The week’s best albums: Hozier, Unreal Unearth review

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Unreal Unearth ★★★★★

Irishman Andrew Hozier-Byrne is a singer-songwriter who deserves to be considered among the very best of his peers. Operating as Hozier, Unreal Unearth is only his third album in nine years, but it is further evidence of an artist who takes pride in every aspect of his craft, concocting songs of emotional and philosophical depth in richly detailed sonic environments that push this venerable genre into thrilling new spaces.

He plays guitar deftly and sings beautifully, drawing on folk, blues and roots forms to marry flowing melodies to meaningful lyrics. He is a serious-minded songwriter, for whom such all-time greats as Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon might be touchstones. Yet he also sounds utterly contemporary, a 33-year-old raised on post-rock and hip-hop, who pushes his arrangements into amorphous terrains balanced on a knife edge between uncomfortable distortions and luscious orchestral depths, where everything is a little bit bent out of shape and only a voice that can swoop and soar from intimate whisper to explosive tenor keeps the song itself front and centre.

Unreal Unearth tackles the challenges of the pandemic years through the lenses of Ovid’s Metamorphosis and Dante’s Inferno, conjuring a journey into hell and back again. And if that’s not enough to put you off, it opens with the mysterious and gorgeous De Selby, a song in two parts based around a character from Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, a comic surrealist masterpiece of Irish literature about “a man who doesn’t know he’s dead”. It even includes a verse in Gaelic. 

Fortunately, Hozier has a playful way with language and a witty common touch that keeps him from slipping too far into self-involved pretension. On the giddily romantic First Time, he compares a kiss to drinking from the mythical river Lethe (one of the tributaries of Hades) but notes in a cheeky Dublin accent that his dirty hometown river, The Liffey, “would have been softer on my stomach all the same.” The classical allusions turn out to be wrapped around a deeply romantic set of songs of love and loss, with bewildered listeners never too far from a singalong chorus.

On previous albums, Hozier has tended to mainly write and record solo, but has opened up on Unreal Unearth, collaborating with hip-hop producer Daniel Tannenbaum (who has previously worked with Kendrick Lamar and Eminem) and his team of writer-producers in Los Angeles, known as Bekon. 

They may not have created anything a radio programmer would consider pop music, but there is a soulfulness and groove to the rhythm section that keeps things moving even as the frontman grapples with heartbreak and uncertainty, whilst an innate sense of optimism breaks through the vast contours of his melodies. Hozier sounds like what you might get if the late, lamented Jeff Buckley had thrown his lot in with Radiohead to conjure up folk music from the dark side of the moon. Put it this way, he’s not Ed Sheeran. But if he keeps turning out albums as good as this, we will still be listening to Hozier in decades to come. Neil McCormick

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