It’s not often that an artist follows a song as big as “Take Me To Church” with four years of relative silence. Sure, Hozier toured extensively in the years following his breakout in 2014, but fans of the Irish multi-instrumentalist had to wait until 2018 for another release. His “Nina Cried Power” EP made waves last year, riding the popularity of its eponymous Mavis Staples collaboration and landing on many year-end music lists, but it mostly garnered anticipation for a full-length follow-up to his self-titled debut.
Following through on the hype, “Wasteland, Baby!” offers a depth and care that justifies its nearly five year incubation period. There’s nothing innovative about the music, but Hozier makes up for safe composition with a solid showcase of his raw musical talent and a remarkably deep thematic core. As such, there’s a lot to unpack here.
“Wasteland, Baby!” is about chaos and its aftermath. Riddled with imagery of desolation and remains of nature, the album features Hozier desperately looking for the beauty in turmoil. Songs like “Nina Cried Power” and “Be” depict his successes in finding such beauty, while “As It Was” and “Shrike,” for example, chronicle a deeper struggle.
The record opens with the pounding, gospel-fueled “Nina Cried Power.” A sonic successor to “Take Me To Church,” the song sees Hozier paying tribute to the musicians before him that inspired generations to take action against social injustice. Included among these inspirations is the legendary Mavis Staples, who offers a soulful verse and sings alongside Hozier as he lists “James Brown cried power, Seeger cried power, Marvin cried power.” Infusing “Marvin” with a frisson-inducing fervor, Hozier drives home the message that power is not in the song but in the singing. He finds meaning in the chaos of protest itself, not in its aftermath.
Several of the other songs here are about committing to life in disorder. With a slick, Alabama-Shakes-esque riff, “No Plan” takes the scientific approach, diving into the beauty of our fleeting time in the chaos of nature and even name-dropping astrophysicist Dr. Katie Mack for her lecture on the Death of a Universe. Meanwhile, “To Noise Making (Sing)” calls for “find[ing] a little remedy” in the act of singing with passion, continuing the theme of “Nina.” Using Chance the Rapper as a model, it can mostly be written off as a gospel-pop song used to contrast the heavier themes surrounding it in the tracklist.
The darkest and possibly most impactful moments on the record are those in which Hozier fails to find the value in chaos, namely in the centerpieces “As It Was” and “Shrike.” The former opens with a dust bowl acoustic guitar riff followed by whisper singing that echoes. Hozier paints a picture of “a roadway, muddy, foxgloved,” one of the many wastelands that appears throughout “Wasteland, Baby!” As the chorus blossoms with violin and piano, Hozier sounds strained, as if he’s singing through gritted teeth, desperate to return to his lost love and find it “just as it was, before the otherness came.” The song is haunted by this otherness, whatever it was that destroyed the love he once had, and he is haunted by the chaos that seemingly took everything from him.
We are then devastated to find out on “Shrike” that this otherness was the narrator himself. Hozier laments that he “couldn’t utter my love when it counted” and “couldn’t whisper when you needed it shouted.” He likens himself to a shrike, a bird that impales its prey on thorns, delivering disturbing imagery of “flying like a bird to you now, back to the hedgerows where bodies are mounted.” Losing his romantic partner has caused him to harm those he subsequently tried to love, and all he can do is try to return. Whereas on “As It Was,” Hozier was frustrated at what the chaos stripped from him, here he just seems exhausted and saddened to find that he can’t go back to the love that existed before it came.
Hozier comes to a tired but uplifting resolution on the title track and closer of “Wasteland, Baby!” He sees falling in love as he sees a wasteland after the end of the world: as a new beginning. An organ synthesizer wanders behind soft vocals and a pleasant acoustic melody, a sonic calm after the storm.
Like all other artists, Hozier uses his art to try to make sense of the universe. He reaches to understand life and death, light and darkness, love and hate, but really he only knows one thing: It’s all a beautiful chaos.
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