Unreal Unearth

Unreal Unearth

From the stark gospel soul of his 2013 breakthrough “Take Me to Church,” to the T.S. Eliot-inspired visions of 2019’s Wasteland, Baby!, Andrew Hozier-Byrne traverses literature, religion, and classical imagery to chart his own musical course. For the third Hozier album, Unreal Unearth, he’s followed that impulse further than ever before. During the pandemic Hozier found himself catching up on literature that had long been on his to-read pile, including Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. Not the lightest of reading, but a line from Dante stuck a chord. “There’s a passage in Dante’s Inferno, when he’s describing what’s above the door to Hell. The third line is: ‘Through me, you enter into the population of loss,’” the Irishman tells Apple Music. “That line just resonated with me. It felt like the world we were in. The news reports were just numbers of deaths, numbers of cases. It was a surreal moment.” It struck him that the format and themes of Dante’s 14th-century epic, in which the poet descends through the nine circles of Hell, could be the perfect prism through which to write about both the unreal experience of the pandemic and the upheavals in his personal life. “There’s such a rich tapestry there. I didn’t study classics and I’m not an academic, but for me, all those myths are happening around us all the time,” he says. “You can play with them a lot and reinterpret them and then subvert them as well.” The result is Hozier’s most ambitious and emotionally powerful album to date. It’s a remarkable journey, taking in pastoral folk, soaring epics, and tracks addressing the devastation caused by colonialism. Here, Hozier guides us through, one track at a time. “De Selby (Part 1)” “I didn’t know the song was going to reference de Selby until it started taking shape. He’s a character in a book by Flann O’Brien called The Third Policeman [written in 1939 but not published until after O’Brien’s death in 1967]. The book is like Alice in Wonderland, and it’s a classic piece of surreal Irish storytelling. De Selby is this lunatic philosopher who—and I don’t want to spoil the ending—doesn’t know he’s dead and in the afterlife. It felt like an appropriate reference for the opening track, to reflect on this darkness that he’s entering into, this infinite space.” “De Selby (Part 2)” “Part two comes out in a totally different place. It was always in this funk, rock place, even in the early demos. Part one ends in the Irish language, it’s basically saying: ‘You arrive to me like nightfall. Although you’re a being of great lightness, I experience you like nighttime.’ It’s that idea of ‘I don’t know where you begin and I end,’ and the song explores that a bit lyrically.” “First Time” “It felt like a nice place to come out of the heaviness of the previous track. It represents limbo. This cycle of birth and death, of being lifted by an experience and then that experience ending and it feeling like your world collapsing in on you, and then going again. Alex Ryan, my buddy who is also my bass player, sent me this bassline one day and it was really colorful and light and playful to work with. I really enjoyed writing the lyrics, they’re not too structured. It’s almost like talk-singing and I hadn’t really explored that much before this album, so I wanted to try it out.” “Francesca” “I had written a song that was very specific to Francesca [from the Second Circle (Lust) in Dante’s Inferno], that was written from her perspective. I was even trying to write it in terza rima, which is the interlocking triplets that Dante wrote in. But that’s where I was a like, ‘OK, I have to step back a little bit from this.’ When this song came around, it started from personal experience and then I allowed those themes and some of the imagery from that character in and then let the two mix. It’s an example of letting the song have a life above ground and resonate with a life below ground in regard to that character.” “I, Carrion (Icarian)” “It’s trying to capture that feeling when you’re lifting off. That sometimes when you’re falling in love with somebody, you’re met with this new lightness that you haven’t experienced ever before, but it’s also terrifying. To fully experience the best of that, you have to take into account that it could all collapse inwards and that you’re OK with that. It’s trying to hold those two realities in both hands and just playing with the imagery of it. It felt appropriate to come out of the hurricane of ‘Francesca,’ where two characters are trapped in a hurricane forever, into someone who is just on the wind.” “Eat Your Young” “I don’t know how intentional the reference to Jonathan Swift was in this. That essay [Swift’s 1729 satirical essay A Modest Proposal in which he suggests the Irish poor sell their children as food] is such a cultural landmark that it’s just hanging in the air. I was more reflecting on what I felt now in this spirit of the times of perpetual short-term gain and a long-term blindness. The increasing levels of precarious living, poverty, job insecurity, rental crisis, property crisis, climate crisis, and a generation that’s inheriting all of that and one generation that’s enjoyed the spoils of it. The lyrics are direct, but the voice is playful. There’s this unreliable narrator who relishes in this thing which was fun to write.” “Damage Gets Done” (feat. Brandi Carlile) “I’ve known Brandi Carlile for years, she’s an incredible artist and I’m lucky to call her a friend. As that song was taking shape, I wanted it to be a duet. It’s kind of like a runaway song. It’s not as easy to access that joy, that sense of wonder when you’re young that captures your enjoyment for a moment and then it’s gone. Brandi has one of those voices that is powerful enough to really achieve that feeling of a classic, almost power ballad. There’s very few artists that I know that have voices like that, who can just swing at notes the way Brandi swings at notes and hit them so perfectly with this immaculate energy and optimism.” “Who We Are” “This song was like a sneeze. Once we had the structure down, we jammed it and I just started wailing melodies that felt right at the time, and then took that away and came back with a song very quickly. Something I wanted to get into the album was this idea of being born at night, of starting in complete darkness. It’s a song that starts in childhood in this cold and dark hour, being lost and then just scraping and carving your way through the dark. It’s an idea that I wanted to put into a song for years, but never did.” “Son of Nyx” “A real collaboration between my bass player Alex Ryan, [producer] Daniel Tannenbaum [aka Bekon], and myself. Alex sent me a piano piece he recorded when he was at home in County Kerry. What you hear at the beginning is the phone memo, you can hear the clock ticking in his family’s living room. Alex’s dad is called Nick, so the song’s name is a play on words. In Greek fable, Nyx is the goddess of night and one of her sons is said to be Charon, the boatman who brings people to the underworld. All those voices that you hear are the choruses or the hooks from the other songs on the album distorted or de-tuned, so you’re hearing the other songs spinning around in that space.” “All Things End” “‘All Things End’ started from a personal place. There was a number of songs that could have taken the place of Heresy [the Sixth Circle]. In the medieval or the classic sense of heresy, ‘All Things End’ took that place. In those moments as a relationship is crumbling and it’s slipping away from you, it was something that you truly believed in and you had all your faith in and you had all of your belief in. In approaching that concept of that not happening it feels like something heretical. It’s a song about accepting, about giving up your faith in something.” “To Someone From a Warm Climate (Uiscefhuaraithe)” “The previous song reflects upon a parting of ways. I suppose in that context, this reflects upon the great loss of this experience and making sense of love after the fact, which is very often the case. If you’ve grown up in a cold climate like Ireland, you learn to warm up the bed quickly so you’re not shivering for too long. It’s a song I wrote for somebody who is from a warm climate who had never experienced that before. [It’s about] the significance of something so mundane but so remarkable—to experience a bed that has been warmed by somebody else in a space that you now share now with somebody new. It’s a love song.” “Butchered Tongue” “This reflects upon what is lost when languages are lost off the face of the earth. I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world for the last 10 years, going into places that had either Native American or Australian place names—some of the places I mention in the song—and asking people what the place name means and being surprised that no one is able to tell you. The song nods to some of the actions, some of the processes that are behind the loss of culture, the loss of language. There is a legacy of terrible violence, but we have to acknowledge not just that, but also bear witness to this generosity and welcomeness that I experience in those places.” “Anything But” “This one falls into the circle of Fraud. It was fun working with American producers on this. They thought it was a very sweet, caring love song. The lyrics in the verses are like, ‘If I was a rip tide/I wouldn’t take you out...If I was a stampede/You wouldn’t get a kick,’ The song is saying on paper that these are kindnesses, but the actual meaning is a joke—what you’re saying is I want nothing to do with you. The third verse says, ‘If I had death’s job, you would live forever.’ So that’s where it fits into the circle of Fraud. I was having fun with that.” “Abstract (Psychopomp)” “As a kid I saw somebody running into traffic to try and pick up an animal that had just been hit by a car. This song looks at that memory in an abstract way and sees all of this tenderness and somebody going to great risk to try and offer some futile gesture of care towards a suffering thing. But it’s also about acceptance and letting go. The alternate title is ‘Psychopomp,’ which is a Greek term for a spirit guide—somebody who moves somebody from one part of life into the next. Charon the boatman would be a psychopomp, so it seemed appropriate for a memory of seeing somebody pick up a dead animal off a road and then place it on the sidewalk where it dies.” “Unknown/Nth” “This is pretty much just me and a guitar which is what I enjoy about this. It’s very similar to the approach of my first record. I really enjoyed the space that’s in that song and then letting that space be something that had a lot of stillness and a lot of coldness in it.” “First Light” “It seemed like an appropriate ending song—of coming out and seeing the sunlight for the first time. Dante talks a lot about how he misses the sky, how he hasn’t seen the stars for so long. He hasn’t seen clouds, he hasn’t seen the sun. I wanted to put that feeling of being in this very oppressive space for a long time and then to see the sky, as if for the first time. I was writing this song with that feeling in mind, of this great opening, a great sense of furtherance and great open space. The record needed something like that. It needed this conclusive deep breath out, this renewing of the wind in the sails and then going on from there.”

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