Hozier’s voice typifies a scourge that has plagued alternative rock radio for half a decade.
Rag’n’Bone Man. Mt. Joy. The Revivalists. Nathaniel Rateliff. I can’t tell them apart and neither can you, because they all sound like Hozier. Folk-soul has reigned ascendant since the Irish singer-songwriter’s “Take Me to Church” blew up in 2014, and if he wasn’t the first on the scene—Mumford & Sons already existed, and so did the Sam Smith/Dan Smith voice—he may be the most influential.
These fellows make anguished, soul-approximate noises over creaky, dust-inflected folk-rock. Their strained singing is supposed to correlate with depth of feeling, but it also establishes distance from the source material, cuing listeners that yes, the singer is indeed a white dude. They’ll never sound like their vocal role models, but boy, will they scream, pant, and bellow trying.
Hozier does understand the dynamics of his relationship to black music, and he feels bad about it. As a nice, well-intentioned liberal he doesn’t want to be considered a cultural appropriator. He wants to practice humility—he’s part of a tradition bigger than himself, after all. Hozier’s second album, Wasteland, Baby!, opens with “Nina Cried Power,” a “song about protest songs” that drops the names of Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Mavis Staples, Curtis Mayfield, Patti LaBelle, John Lennon, James Brown, B.B. King, Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie, like he’s practicing his Grammy acceptance speech. To render the song immune from criticism, he invites Staples herself to sing the chorus and bridge, although she’s promptly drowned out by clunky bass and a blaring gospel choir.
The lilting rhythm guitar on “Almost (Sweet Music)” suggests a sweeter love song; then you notice that the lyrics have been pieced together from the titles of about 20 jazz classics, a reverent reference stew. If the chorus had been “Be still my beating heart/don’t ruin this song for me” rather than “Don’t ruin this on me,” “Almost” would have captured how music and memories mingle, but the soft focus doesn’t click.
Wasteland, Baby! taps into a mood of contemporary political malaise, situating several songs on the edge of some ruinous, perhaps climate-related catastrophe, but the album also stars the moaning loverboy who covered Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” in January. Sometimes romance and apocalypse collide in Princean ways. On the closing title track, Hozier and his beloved fall in love while watching “the death of the sun”; on “No Plan,” he offers to keep you company before the world ends, as quivery fuzz guitar crackles over the beat’s steady deathward march.
There’s a desperation about the album, as Hozier searches for spiritual-erotic sustenance amid chaos. “Shrike,” a hushed acoustic trifle, is lovely, as the plucked guitar melody projects a cool unflappability and sounds for once like folk music. Hozier casts himself as “the shrike to your sharp and glorious thorn,” a shrike being a bird that impales its prey on thorns. He doesn’t expand on the conceit, and he doesn’t have to. It’s better left obscure: stark, simple, with eerie tinges of violence, a quiet moment of unexplained weirdness.
If Wasteland, Baby! doesn’t quite carve out a peaceful aural hiding space, blame Hozier’s voice, a loud, rumbling thing, simultaneously raw and mannered. He can’t stop roaring. A soul man should sound like he at least knows how to relax, even if he isn’t relaxing at a given moment; Hozier flaunts his tortured solemnity on sad songs and love songs alike. Sex for Hozier is a strained experience, just like his singing, especially when he mixes metaphors, like one of those writers nominated for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. There’s no reason a song whose hook is “Lover, be good to me” should also include verses like “When St. Peter loses cool and bars the gates/When Atlas acts the maggot, makes his arms shake.”
The album’s watery sound heightens the bombast: Recorded as if in a cathedral, with lots of echo space between instruments, the guitars and handclaps boom and resound. Even the quieter acoustic songs are often suffused by background choral singing, sustained ohhhs and ooohs, generating a pale glow. The louder songs are busy as hell—murky organ, kick drum, random distorted thuds, it’s all in there somewhere.
But it’s too easy to call Hozier pompous. In fact, he’s guilty of a more conventionally tedious form of humility. He conceives of himself as an everyman, lucky enough to have been touched by some conflation of soul music and the muses. These exotic forces transformed his life, and he feels blessed to sing about his secular grace. Performers from Leonard Cohen to Julien Baker have demonstrated that such an approach is not incompatible with wit, eccentricity, invention. I suspect the long shadow of Hozier’s influence stems from blankness. Just by huffing and puffing, any boring white dude can elevate himself into grandeur.