CD: Hozier - Wasteland Baby! The Irish troubadour subtly changes the formula - how does it compare?

From The Arts Desk

In the summer of 2014, there was little getting away from Hozier's "Take Me to Church". Whenever you turned on the TV or the radio there it was. It wasn't just in this country. Eventually, the song became number one in 12 countries and number 2 in the States. Of course, for the singer, this massive success also brought a big problem: how to top it? When Hozier sat down to write his new album he must have agonised about what he'd got so right first time around.

On paper, the recipe was simply a blend of soul, gospel, folk, and rock. The clever bit was how the ingredients were mixed. Hozier's music appealed both to sensitive indie rockers and those who prefer a more muscular style. That's what set it apart. theartsdesk's reviewer - a self-confessed loather of vulnerable male singer-songwriters - even opined that Andrew Hozier-Byrne had much more in common with Robert Plant than the likes of David Gray or Jack Johnson.

This time around Hozier still mixes soul with rock and folk. But now, the proportions have changed.

Three belting soul-rock numbers open proceedings. Guest appearances by Mavis Staples and Booker T give opener, "Nina Cried Power", a rich, meaty sound. Personally, I prefer the more nuanced tone on "Almost (Sweet Music)". The guitar is light, the verse is beautifully mumbled and the whole lot just sways. It almost reminds you of Van Morrison.

It also sets things up nicely for the album's two pop-rock numbers. One works well, the other less so. "Nobody" adds a pinch of hip hop to create a possible summer hit. Unfortunately, "To Noise Making (Sing)" takes the vibe too far, veering perilously close to George Ezra territory.

Finally, we come to are the brooding folk-rockers. The best of these are really quite pretty. "As it was" contains hints of early John Martyn, and the album's closer, "Wasteland Baby!" harks straight back to acoustic Zeppelin. Disappointingly, though, the quality, again, isn't even. "Sunlight" seems to never end and "Dinner and Diatribes" is just too scratchy.

You can't help noticing too, that these are two of the album's most gloomy-sounding songs. As Hozier knows well, being musically downbeat works better when there's a little contrast. Wasteland Baby!'s finer moments - and there are many - come where he balances his natural despondency with some positivity.

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