Hozier – Hozier

God, death, love, and cruelty are interesting bedfellows on Hozier’s debut record, writes JULES LeFEVRE.

Before the opening track is finished, Hozier has already begged for death by a sharpened knife. By the time the record is done, he’ll ask animals to tear at his flesh, crawl from the grave to be by his lover’s side, and slither to her door. Hidden within a gothic brew of deep, crackling guitars and cold, thundering drums – it’s an alluring slide into darkness on Hozier’s debut LP.

Ireland’s Andrew Hozier-Byrne first blipped on the radar last October with the release of the Take Me To Church EP. The title track (which also appears as the opener on the album) was a bloody examination of a bad relationship – and was somewhat controversially linked to Ireland’s relationship with the Catholic Church. Coupled a video condemning Russia’s treatment of the LGBTI community, it was a pretty audacious opening from an unknown blues artist from Bray, County Wicklow.

While ‘Take Me To Church’ carried dark undertones, on the surface it was an even ride – a muscular cut of 21st century alt-blues, swaying and rumbling back and forth, propelled by Hozier’s clear vocals. His voice is still the strongest weapon in his armory – rich, expressive, and tightly controlled, they swoop low and scrape the bass; other times wrangled into a tortured yell. It’s a pretty well stocked armory at that – Hozier is a deft guitarist (check ‘To Be Alone’), and a poetic lyricist (‘From Eden’, ‘In A Week’.)

He also may be from Ireland, but Hozier is firmly planted in the Deep South of the USA – the standout ‘To Be Alone’ could be an offcut from a Tony Joe White record. The guitar is crystal clear – ringing with reverb, with Hozier skating along the top strings before diving low to bend the blues third. The lyrics are similarly bleak and curious: “Never felt too good in crowds/ With folks around, when they’re playing/ The anthems of rape culture loud”.

Hozier has a firm grip on the bleak – the strongest cuts here rely on cold guitar lines and the lyrical collision of death and love – so it’s not surprising that on the more up-beat tracks, he stumbles. ‘Jackie And Wilson’ dirties up proceedings with some crackly garage blues, but despite the hooky chorus it comes off as a little too jolly (“We’ll name our children Jackie And Wilson/ Raise them on rhythm and blues”) – a kind of swing and miss John Mayer. The following track ‘Someone New’ falls into a similar trap, slightly improved by its avoidance of twee lyricisms. Later, he does hit the target on ‘From Eden’, albeit with an incongruous string interlude and some highly poetic turns: “Idealism sits in prison/ Chivalry fell on its sword…/ I slithered here from Eden / Just to hide outside your door”.

Much more interesting is ‘Angel Of Small Death And The Codeine Scene’, which dives into The Black Keys shuffled blues territory, Hozier’s vocals filtered through layers of ice and echo. Towards the end, the metallic ‘It Will Come Back’ is the glowing reassurance that Hozier for now, is at his best when he strips it back. As a further case in point, the closer, the live track ‘Cherry Wine’ is acoustic folk at its most gorgeous.

There are few missteps on Hozier – at its best it stuns and at its worst it’s a pleasant ride. But Hozier’s are not the skills of a one-trick-pony and that may well carry him beyond this very self-assured and solid debut.