Hozier’s third studio album, Unreal Unearth, was released on Friday, Aug. 18, 2023, following the release of five singles, the earliest being “Eat Your Young” in its own EP on Friday, March 17, 2023, and the last being “De Selby (Part 2)” on Monday, July 17, 2023. With 16 songs and a run time of just over an hour, Hozier demonstrates an incredible mastery of his craft, as well as a well-developed artistic interpretation of both classical Greek and Biblical imagery. Unlike his previous releases (his eponymous album and Wasteland, Baby!), Unreal Unearth is concept-driven, based heavily on Dante’s “Inferno.” The tracklist—and this review—follows the poet’s journey through the nine circles of Hell, featuring a wide range of musical styles and production.
“It’s a way that I could process some of my personal experiences in that period of the pandemic and to credit walking through a very changing time, a very challenging time for me,” Hozier said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “We lost something, whatever it is, and we came out the other side.”
“De Selby (Part 1)” and “De Selby (Part 2)” borrow their name from a fictional esoteric philosopher created by Hozier’s fellow Irish creative, Flann O’Brien, in the novels “The Third Policeman” and “The Dalkey Archive.” Featuring fingerpicked acoustic guitar and a string section, the atmospheric and melancholy “Part 1” is one of only two songs on the album to be entirely self-written, and his first to contain entire verses in Gaeilge.
This opener transitions seamlessly into “Part 2” with a late choral addition, building up to the sequel’s much more dynamic energy. A total departure from anything he has previously produced, “Part 2” has a highly funk sound, almost rock, as the singer grapples with the uncertainty of metamorphosis and the fluidity of beginnings and endings. The contrast between the darkness of “Part 1” and the brightness of “Part 2” provides the perfect introduction to the journey the album takes its listeners on.
Circle I: Limbo
Hozier is in good company here in this circle, where Dante places—among other notable poets and philosophers—both Homer and Virgil in “Inferno.” The playful, light “First Time” resides in limbo, the cycle of birth and death.
“Some part of me must have died / the first time you called me ‘Baby,’” Hozier sings. “And some part of me came alive / the first time that you called me ‘Baby.”
With an absolutely brutal ending to an otherwise upbeat and romantic song, “First Time” leads us to
Circle II: Lust
“Francesca” and “I, Carrion (Icarian)”—two lyrical masterpieces—are full of all the remorseless devotion that we have come to expect from his songs, following (and exceeding) the power of his breakout debut “Take Me to Church.”
Hozier references “Inferno” most closely in “Francesca,” adapting the relatively short canto Dante wrote about the tragic 13th-century affair of Francesca da Rimini with her brother-in-law Paolo. Francesca’s husband murders the two while they are in the act of love.
“Love, which allows no loved one not to love, / seized me with such a strong delight in him / that, as you see, it will not leave me yet,” Francesca tells Dante, a sentiment Hozier echoes time and time again in his song, first released as the album’s debut single on May 19, 2023.
And if one could believe it, what “Francesca” does, “I, Carrion” does better. A simple acoustic guitar ballad, reminiscent of “Like Real People Do,” “Cherry Wine,” and “Shrike,” this retelling of the Greek myth of Icarus allows Hozier’s vocals to truly shine.
“This song just imagines…that as [Icarus] arrives into death, he is in complete denial of the fact he could have fallen, because the experience of falling itself was just too blissful,” Hozier said in the song’s introduction during his performance in Gilford, New Hampshire. If you can only listen to one song on this album, make it this one.
Circle III: Gluttony
“Eat Your Young” is the first taste of Hozier’s political commentary on this album. Fans theorize that the song’s title was taken from Jonathan Swift’s satirical 1729 essay where he suggests the sacrifice of young children to the wealthy to solve the problems of the impoverished Irish population under British occupation.
“I was more reflecting on what I felt now in this spirit of the times of perpetual short-term gain and a long-term blindness,” Hozier said to Apple Music. “The increasing levels of precarious living, poverty, job insecurity, rental crisis, property crisis, climate crisis, and a generation that’s inheriting all of that and one generation that’s enjoyed the spoils of it.”
Swift offers six ways that one might cook and eat a child, and Hozier himself offers up “seven new ways you can eat your young.” With references to war, natural disasters, and human greed in times of scarcity, he suggests that it may very well be “quicker and easier to eat your young.” Dark and tragic, this song is full of teeth, the singer’s grittier side making an appearance in his work.
Circle IV: Greed
“Damage Gets Done” is the only song on the album that has a feature, and frankly suffers a bit for it. Reflecting on reckless young love that exists without care or consideration for the world being destroyed around them, it serves as the antithesis to “Eat Your Young.” These lovers are simply trying to hold on to each other—commendable, certainly, and makes for a good song. Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up quite as well against the others on the album, sonically too similar to “Eat Your Young” for it to truly stand out when doing a listen.
Circle V: Anger
Two piano players are writing this review, so “Who We Are”—backed by a simple piano melody that sounds very much like the untuned instruments in our parents’ basements—receives a fair bit of kudos if only for that. An unassuming track tucked into the heart of the album, “Who We Are” is better appreciated on its own separate listen. Here, Hozier’s vocal range is really given the room to shine, as well as his incredible lyrical talent.
“Someone with your eyes / might come in time,” he sings, “to hold me like water, / or Christ, hold me like a knife.”
The chorus further reflects on the desire to find oneself in the darkness, a callback to the metaphors previously used in “De Selby.” At this album’s midpoint, Hozier demonstrates his refined ability to create an album experience with songs that reference each other and reference songs still to come.
Circle VI: Heresy
Speaking of referencing and foreshadowing, “Son of Nyx” is an amalgamation of the various choruses and lines from the rest of the album, swirling around against a moving instrumental background. For those following along at home with their text of “Inferno,” “Son of Nyx” is not so much the sixth circle as it is the City of Dis, Hell’s counterpart to the heavenly city which encompasses all of Lower Hell.
The track also is a touching tribute to the late father of Hozier’s close friend and bass player, Alex Ryan.
“He sent me a voice memo with him just sitting at a piano and playing this beautiful piece,” Hozier said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “Alex’s father’s name was Nick. So Alex, then, being a son of Nick, is a reference there, too, to honor his father. When I first heard it, I just thought it was staggeringly beautiful.”
“All Things End” continues on the theme of endings and accepting the finality of relationships and experiences even as we rally again. While it may seem like a depressing sentiment at first listen, its core message is anything but. Hozier encourages us to embrace the impermanence of everything around us because, after all, that’s what makes it precious.
“If there was anyone to get through this life / with their heart still intact they didn’t do it right,” Hozier sings.
The triumphant gospel choir which closes out the song drives this sentiment home. Instead of something to be feared and avoided, Hozier tells us, our mortality and our fragile position on this earth is worthy of celebration—the fact that “all things end” is the inevitable price we have to pay for the privilege of experiencing existence, and the very reason to savor it.
Circle VII: Violence
Violence, indeed, is what this section commits against its listeners. Featuring two deeply emotional piano ballads with almost no production and some of the most gorgeous vocals in this release, “To Someone From a Warm Climate (Uiscefhuaraithe)” and “Butchered Tongue” have to be listened to in order to be properly experienced. Steeped in an upbringing in the Irish countryside, these songs offer glimpses into Hozier’s childhood in a nation shaped brutally by colonization. “Butchered Tongue,” in particular, reflects on what is lost through the extinction of indigenous languages and the effort to reclaim and revive these cultures through today’s speakers.
Get your headphones, and go listen right now. Perhaps also a box of tissues—you’ll need them.
Circle VIII: Fraud
“Anything But,” true to its placement in the eighth circle, is a satiric, tongue-in-cheek condemnation of an ex-lover that sounds first like a love song. Its upbeat, ’80s-esque feel is so necessary this late in the album, even if it is a bit of a whiplash from the previous tracks.
“Abstract (Psychopomp)” is a late-album triumph, poetry at its finest. A story of utter compassion demonstrated by a stranger running into the street to hold an animal hit by a vehicle, Hozier here turns a childhood memory into a reconceptualization of grief and the necessity of continuing on even as you allow yourself to feel the past.
Circle IX: Treachery
We return to one song again for the ninth circle: “Unknown/Nth,” initially released as a single on June 6, 2023. Its minimalist, acoustic production allows its lyrics to shine.
“You called me angel for the first time, my heart leapt from me,” Hozier sings. “You smile now, I can see its pieces still stuck in your teeth.”
Here, Hozier references Lucifer, sitting in this ninth circle and consuming the three other most famous traitors: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius.
This track, filled with tenderness, most recalls Mark Twain’s quote.
“But who prays for Satan?” Twain wrote. “Who, in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it the most?”
Where “De Selby” was the ideal album opener, “First Light” is the perfect closer, full of light.
“It’s about coming out the other side and having a new relationship with light as something you don’t want to hide from, or disappear from,” Hozier said in his Entertainment Weekly interview. “It’s something you can celebrate—as if you’re seeing it for the first time—for its brilliance, as opposed to something that is blinding.”
Sonically exultant, the song focuses on the process of growing from past experiences, a conclusion to the tension present in the rest of the album. The catharsis is much needed: Unreal Unearth is not a casual listen. It is, however, an incredibly worthwhile one. Excuse us, kindly, while we go sob in the shower.
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