When Hozier’s Take Me To Church first hit, it was a flooring moment. In 2013 when so much mainstream music was struggling to aim beyond pop tropes that would be forgotten before long (something that, looking at the year-end charts from that year, is especially true now), here was a haunted, aged blues song that was not only the debut single from a brand new artist, but showed an intelligence and appreciation of the past the so few of his contemporaries could even begin to lay claim to. As for the debut full-length that followed a year later, it was even better, now with a focus broadened to soul, folk and rock, littered with biblical imagery and songs so out of their time that still sounded fresh and exciting. And then, Hozier fell off the face of the earth entirely. The next lot of new music he’d release wouldn’t be until four years later with the Nina Cried Power EP which, while good, only served to show how severely Hozier had been muscled out of his place in the sun. Compared to Take Me To Church, its presence was effectively nonexistent, a fact that would only feel more concerning upon revealing its intention as a preview of sorts for his sophomore album Wasteland, Baby!. After all, an artist like this in a mainstream capacity isn’t an everyday occurrence, and falling out of favour in the way that Hozier has can be rather demotivating for both the fans and the artist with a whole new album that no one really seems to be paying attention to.
That doesn’t seem like too much of a problem though, especially when Wasteland, Baby! is largely more of the same, another earthy slow burn that once again draws on images of mythology and religion to prop up its writing. That’s kind of all it is though, and you’d hope that with such an extended period of time away that Hozier would’ve picked up a few more tricks instead of doubling back on ones he’s already used with less panache and eruditeness. There was a mystique about Hozier’s debut that fully benefited how tightly woven its themes and concepts were, and while that’s not saying that Wasteland, Baby! is going the whole hog for bombastic pop crowd-pleasers, it’s easy to pick up on looser stitching when it shows a lot more often. He’s definitely still got a way with words in the searing bleakness drawing parallels to Greek myth on Talk or as the playful romantic on Nobody and To Noise Making (Singing), but on the whole, there’s a definite feeling of relative unambitiousness which, compared to the multi-layered ambiguity that was previously offered, can be sincerely disheartening. The most obvious example is the celebration of protest music that essentially winds up to listing artists on Nina Cried Power, only to be done so much better for classic jazz on the very next track Almost (Sweet Music), but there’s a real lack of development from the central lyrical idea on Movement and Sunlight, or on Dinner & Diatribes, feels so at odds with so much else in its chastising of boring social situations that it struggles to connect whatsoever. Admittedly that could be the weight of expectations bearing down harder than expected – there’s nothing truly awful here and there’s always at least an interesting turn of phrase to pick out – but Wasteland, Baby! definitely lacks the incredible highs of its predecessor, and that shows in earnest.
Of course, it doesn’t help that this album can lack some real oomph at points, and especially at the end, transitions from an already long album to one that can be quite a chore to get through. The problem comes in a lot of how the consolidation of sounds has been handled; for the most part, the soul, blues, folk and rock elements serve as one base sound, and while that’s not a bad decision in itself, the flatlining really hurts an album struggling to hold its momentum as it is. The best moments are fairly easy to pick out, and with the intimate, laidback stomp of To Noise Making (Sing) or the swirling, gospel-tinged bluster of No Plan and Be, Hozier cultivates a more streamlined sound that really does benefit his voice, ranging from deep, melancholy burrs to bluesy howls with all the imperfections left in. But that bluster is arguably the main component of this album, and isolated and paired with just an acoustic guitar like on As It Was or the title track, it makes for songs that couldn’t feel more like filler in their general lack of presence. Granted, this was a factor on the debut too, but at least that had soaring highs that made moments of respite feel welcome; here, there’s basically none of that, and Wasteland, Baby! just meanders by a lot of the time in a way that does a disservice to Hozier as an artist.
And maybe that all sounds a bit harsh – this is still a solid album overall with moments that definitely have their worth – but considering how great Hozier can be at his absolute best, this is a disappointment in a lot of ways. It’s definitely a sophomore slump in a lack of real vibrancy and the poetic nuance that he’s become known for, and while what is here definitely has the very natural, spacious tone that’s frequently done well enough, it’s not up to his best and that’s easy to tell. It’s certainly still worth a listen, but only in isolated areas; not enough is done to justify or warrant how much is here, and even at its best, it’s hardly a position that Hozier wants to be in right now.
For fans of: Lord Huron, Ben Howard, Ray LaMontagne
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Wasteland, Baby!’ by Hozier is out now on Island Records.