Although the pop singles charts are currently dominated by women, there’s a burgeoning movement of soulful male solo artists taking aim at stardom—led by a group that includes Australian folkie Vance Joy, British R&B star Sam Smith, and now the bluesy Irish singer-songwriter Hozier. Although the latter should receive a visibility boost when he appears on Saturday Night Live later this week, his first major career bump came last fall, when the video for “Take Me To Church” went viral on YouTube.
This gospel-inflected, fire-and-brimstone song—which condemns organized religion while praising sex and love as a replacement—kicks off his self-titled debut on an appropriately strident note. Musically, the rest of the album follows suit: The Black Keys’ electrified garage-rock days and Gary Clark Jr.’s crackling Southern blues are major influences, while the languorous “It Will Come Back” boasts devilish strings to match Hozier’s smoky, wizened voice. “Someone New” is upbeat vintage soul, and the fantastic “Jackie And Wilson” is retro-toned R&B backed by an angelic choir of harmonies.
However, Hozier is far more nuanced than these inspirations imply, mainly because of its skillful, smart exploration of dualities: how romance can be at once restorative and destructive, how people are both inherently good and evil, and even how beauty can emerge from death. In fact, that theme emerges on the album’s highlight, an ornate, Celtic-flecked duet called “In A Week” that’s about two lovers perishing together in a field. The lovely, macabre song makes dying sound like the most romantic thing in the world: “After the insects have made their claim / I’d be home with you.” The slightly fantastical “Like Real People Do” also intertwines morbid references to “bugs and dirt” with an exhortation to “kiss like real people do”; the combination of keening vocals and solemn buckling riffs adds even deeper shadows to this passion. And the sparse “Cherry Wine” illustrates a tempestuous, hot-headed relationship by juxtaposing samples of pleasant chirping birds with resonant acoustic guitars. In the end, it’s these examples of creative friction that make Hozier such a compelling listen.