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Review: Hozier "Unreal Unearth"

Born the son of a local blues musician, it seems that performing runs in Irish indie/alternative and blues artist Hozier's blood. Following years touring internationally with Irish choral group Anúna, Hozier released his debut solo EP, Take Me to Church, in 2013. The project's title track topped charts and called out discrimination against the LGBTQ community in the Catholic church. Hozier has continued to build a devoted fan base since his breakout release, exploring religion, folklore, and self-identity in every song.


Unreal Unearth dropped on August 18, 2023. The album centers around Dante's Inferno and the nine circles of Hell, inspiring discussion surrounding the various literary and biblical references nestled throughout the project. An impressive 16 tracks long, the concept LP is intended to be listened to in order from start to finish.


Full Tracklist:

1. "De Selby (Part 1)"

2. "De Selby (Part 2)"

3."First Time"

4. "Francesca"

5. "I, Carrion (Icarian)"

6. "Eat Your Young"

7. "Damage Gets Done (feat. Brandi Carlile)"

8. "Who We Are"

9. "Son of Nyx"

10. "All Things End"

11. "To Someone From a Warm Climate (Uiscefhuaraithe)"

12. "Butchered Tongue"

13. "Anything But"

14. "Abstract (Psychopomp)"

16. "Unknown / Nth"

16. "First Light"


The first two tracks of Unreal Unearth celebrate darkness–as the origin of all life, emptiness, beauty, bliss, and as unbearable discomfort. Named after a fictional character in Flann O'Brien's 1967 novel The Third Policeman, the songs blend together seamlessly into one dynamic building story. "De Selby (Part 1)" layers minimalistic folk instrumentation with Hozier's show-stopping vocal performance for an eerie introduction. Angelic harmonies join the lead melody for a verse in Irish: "Bhfuilis soranna sorcha (You are Nice and Bright) / Ach tagais ’nós na hoíche (But come like the night) / Is claochlú an ealaín (The Art is transformative) / Is ealaín dubh í (It is a Dark/Black Art)".


A playful juxtaposition of darkness with light, "De Selby (Part 2)" is the upbeat, pop-centric counterpart to its somber, subdued part one. The haunting transition period between the songs feels as though the listener is being pulled underground into the first ring of blues rock afterlife. Some fans critique that the danceability of this tune, along with a few others, contradicts the concept of Unreal Unearth as an interpretation of Inferno. However, I feel that the gritty, groovy energies of these tracks actually make for some of the best moments in the LP. Each song represents of a new facet of the underworld, introducing dynamic layers of sin; passion, heartbreak, greed, and more are expressed through both the gentle and the loud points.



The bluesy "First Time" highlights Hozier's melodic command, showing off a falsetto that balances out the song's full-bodied instrumentation. With so many elements in the arrangement, including strings and two guitars, the soft and toned-down vocal performance is just what "First Time" needs. There's no doubt that the artist did his homework before writing Unreal Unearth. "Francesca" draws on Dante's chapter about a woman condemned to the second circle of Hell: the Circle of Lust. After being married off to the brother of her true love, Francesca engaged in a secret, forbidden romance that led to her eventual demise. In Hozier's take on the tale, love overshadows eternal damnation. Lyrics like, "Da-ah, darlin', I would do it again / If I could hold you for a minute / Da-ah, darlin', I'd go through it again", express no regrets about the sacrifice, creating an element of romance within suffering.


"Da-ah, darlin', I would do it again / If I could hold you for a minute / Da-ah, darlin', I'd go through it again"

"I, Carrion (Icarian)" functions as a necessary acoustic break from the strength of its surrounding tracks but becomes slightly drowned out in the context of the larger project. This is especially true given that the following tune, "Eat Your Young" carries such a striking message and presence. Hozier comments on capitalism and the gluttony of wealthy societal figures who exploit younger generations for their personal gain. The mid-tempo drum beat vaguely mimics a militaristic rhythm, giving the whole song an apocalyptic, battle-ready energy. Aside from its sinfully catchy melodies, "Eat Your Young"'s steady piano parts stand out as an effective creative choice. Unreal Unearth was an excellent opportunity for Hozier to take risks lyrically and address wildly dark, horny, and morally ambiguous topics, however, some songs do seem to play it safe. This track touches on some of the more intrinsically evil themes aligned with Inferno in a clever, accessible way.



"Damage Gets Done (feat. Brandi Carlile)" brings a fresh flavor to the album with its duet-style vocals. The peppy main guitar riff bears a resemblance to Tears For Fears' 1985 hit "Everybody Wants To Rule The World". The alternative pop power ballad is undeniably well-composed and performed–a given considering the star-studded collaboration between Hozier and Brandi Carlile. Although it doesn't feel quite as experimental or innovative as some of the other Unreal Unearth songs, it's a solid, enjoyable listen.


Raw, authentic, vulnerable. These are the words that come to mind upon hearing "Who We Are". The tune marks a significant dynamic milestone in the LP, as it features Hozier's impassioned, belted singing while many of the others remain in falsetto and a lower range. The artist, known for his fierce and soulful voice, makes the absolute most of these four minutes. Beginning with only piano and building steadily throughout the arrangement, "Who We Are" is an emotive top pick from the project. "All Things End", which follows instrumental transition track "Son of Nyx", comes not only with an earworm chorus melody but also with an impressive vocal modulation and gospel choir finale. The a capella ending makes the song soar sonically (ironic, given that the album takes place underground).


Photo by Kayla Johnson

"Butchered Tongue" introduces a new level of seriousness to Unreal Unearth. The somber single confronts historical and modern colonialism, as well as its lingering impacts on various communities. Heart-wrenching lyricism conveys the cultural disconnect and disenfranchisement that comes with the loss of indigenous languages.





"A butchered tongue still singin' here above the ground... You may never know your fortune until the distance has been shown / Between what is lost forever and what can still be known"

The transition to "Anything But" is a seismic vibe shift; the spirited 13th track may sound like a love song upon first listen, but it's actually about Hozier wanting to put as much distance between himself and another person as possible. Handclaps and vivacious guitar strumming give the song a celebratory, festival-like feel that contrasts with its not-so-positive meaning. Both "Abstract (Psychopomp)" and "Unknown / Nth" add to the emotional and energetic spectrums of the LP as a whole listening experience. Culminating track "First Light" redefines ending with a bang. The artistry of the song, from its unforgettable vocal refrains to its cinematic blend of strings, synths, guitars, and rhythms, truly goes above and beyond expectations. The tune characterizes the continued evolution of Hozier as an artist, leaving fans to wonder how he might push the boundaries of popular music next.

Overall, Unreal Unearth is a strong album sonically and conceptually. Cleverly interwoven biblical and literary references, forward-thinking arrangements, and poignant social commentary form one cohesive musical storyline. The exceptionally long project contains a rare number of must-listen moments and hints at an exciting future for Hozier.


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