Whether or not you’ve realized it, you’ve heard the opening to Hozier’s newest effort, Wasteland, Baby!, more times than you know. “Nina Cried Power” has been everywhere since its release, burnt into listeners’ brains through pure — fittingly enough — power. A feature from Mavis Staples and the backing of a choir give way to the song’s hauntingly memorable quality. It’s classic Hozier, but stronger, more spirited and full of force. As both the album’s draw and introduction, “Nina Cried Power” serves its purpose well. All the qualities weaved throughout the unforgettable anthem remain strong for the entirety of Wasteland, Baby! — it’s a collection of hits to come.
Even still, while his fingerprints are visible on every track, Wasteland, Baby! marks new territory for Hozier as an artist — new in the way in which you’ll wish you could experience it for the first time all over again. Wasteland, Baby! is marked by the immersion into a southern gothic atmosphere, with a bright and happy underbelly being the biggest surprise the album has to offer.
The familiarity of “Nina Cried Power” makes a sharp transition into “Almost (Sweet Music)”, a song with a quality that’s foreign yet welcomed. “Almost (Sweet Music)” never loses it’s cheeriness, something unfamiliar from Hozier’s prior works: even songs that sounded to be on the lighter sign always had a dark undertone hidden beneath. As strange as it may be, it’s a trend that should be maintained.
The track “Movement” is fittingly named, musically bouncing between a variety of Hozier’s strengths. The song waxes and wanes with a purpose; verses are marked by subtlety, the usual power of Hozier’s voice hidden in soft vocals with a whispery quality. Then, the chorus disrupts the entire landscape of the song with his typical force. The unexpected hit of the bridge and its’ transition back into the chorus, melted together by distant, harmonizing voices working as one, is one of the most memorable moments of the album. All of it is something we’ve seen before from Hozier, yet dashed with maturation and unabashed confidence.
The fifth track, “Nobody”, is another standout due to the brightness illuminating the track. If the feeling of warm sunlight hitting your skin could be transformed into a song, strangely enough, Hozier would be the one to do it. His vocals take a backseat to the percussion-driven nature of “Nobody”, but as much as listeners would love to hear them shine as much as this song does, it’s warranted for this track.
But it wouldn’t be a Hozier album without the slow and the dark — when “As It Was” kicks in, bringing a gothic feel to the album along with it, we see fleeting moments of “Work Song” and “Arsonist’s Lullaby” hidden within it. “As It Was” leads into “Shrike”, soon to be another classic piece of Hozier history and one of the strongest songs on the album. Falsettos and strings interlaced throughout the chorus carry “Shrike” to being the best of the best.
Unforgettable, moving vocals are where the strength of Hozier’s music lies, but the appearances of certain instruments on Wasteland, Baby! feels like experimentation gone right every single time. “Be” would have been left behind and forgotten if it wasn’t for the distorted guitar of the main riff. “Sunlight” sees Hozier making a mess of music, melding together as much at once as he can, yet it feels deliberate — something to match the emotions that go into the making of a love song, topped off by an expert acoustic bridge.
Finally, we’re brought to the title track “Wasteland, Baby!”. In the grand scheme of things, the outro isn’t as impressive as the rest, but it serves its purpose — it feels personal, like the most raw version of a song at its inception, sung with care to the person it was written about. “Wasteland, Baby!” is built on light strings and soft whispers layered with a shaky vocal effect. Maybe it isn’t the best song on the album, but it feels like an important one that shaped the rest of it . For the intimacy of the track alone, “Wasteland, Baby!” rightfully earns its’ place as both the title track and punctuating piece.