Every few months on her Radio 1 show, Fearne Cotton goes head-to-head with colleague Zane Lowe in a feature called, wait for it, ‘Fearne Vs Zane’. The two DJs put forward tracks tailored to win specific rounds, such as ‘Best Work-Out Song’ or ‘Office Party Slow Jam’, before an impartial judge decrees one selection victorious. Back in December of 2013, Fearne chose Take Me To Church, the lead single by Andrew Hozier-Bryne (alias Hozier), as her entry into the ‘Song by an Artist to Watch’ round. Zane chose Money on My Mind by Sam Smith. Fearne won.
Ten months on, Hozier’s very same lead single sits with incongruous pluck alongside Nicki Minaj and Jessie J’s Bang Bang on the Radio 1 Playlist. Why has it taken so long for this powerful, haunting song to break through the ranks? Probably because in every sense, Hozier’s music is content with setting its own pace. It’s one of a number of rare qualities that make the singer-songwriter’s self-titled debut so endlessly, effortlessly engaging.
It’s easy to see why Radio 1 picked him up. Blending the acoustic warmth of Ben Howard with the melancholy timbre of George Ezra, he represents the kind of indie-fodder that keeps the station’s diversity-meter ticking over. But after one listen, it’s evident that Hozier’s debut is in no way content to fill this narrow void. Beneath the denim and the trippy album artwork, sounds akin to the seminal blues of artists like Elmore James and John Lee Hooker wait to be discovered, seasoned with a Bob Dylan dusting of angst-ridden folk. As a result, the record offers to the keen listener a hugely more enriching experience than those of the debuts of Howard and Ezra combined.
Take Me To Church acts as the album opener, launching into a piano-driven whirlwind of bass drum, gospel choir vocals and tortured poetry. The chorus finds Hozier-Bryne bellowing ‘I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies, I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife’ with an unrepentant agony that establishes the emotional scope for the rest of the record; he wastes no time in showing the door to anyone onboard for an easy listen. Angel of Small Death & the Codeine Scene nimbly channels the energy of the opener into the most eclectic song on the album. Starting sparsely with a sultry vocal, lone electric guitar and a blues beat, Hozier builds a wall of rhythm and sound from a blend of dense percussion, gospel backing and even some organ chords near the close.
To Be Alone and From Eden deal a double-punch as two of the strongest tracks on the record. It’s on the former that the influence of Hozier’s father’s extensive African-American blues collection can be heard most keenly, and where the record’s most impressive display of vocal acrobatics are to be sampled. From Eden is a wonder. Written in a complex 5:4 rhythm, it’s one of the most charming, uplifting and musically dexterous songs you’re likely to hear this year. There are some equally sweet and deftly composed tracks to be found on the second half of the album in the forms of Like Real People Do and a heartbreaking live version of Cherry Wine.
All in all, it’s a near faultless record, and one of the year’s most impressive debuts. Even the less captivating corners (Jackie & Wilson, Work Song) capably evince Hozier-Bryne’s organic talent for song writing and composition that set him apart from many of his contemporaries. It’s this capacity that could potentially see a Jake Bugg-esque ascent to festival and radio favourite over the course of a few albums. Just don’t expect it to happen quickly – he’s making music that matters, and he’s taking all the time he needs.