Catharsis in Concert: Reviewing Hozier’s 'Unreal Unearth' Tour


Cara Doherty (she/her) gets something more than music from seeing Hozier’s ‘Unreal Unearth Tour’ at the Wembley OVO Arena

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Image by Brendan Lynch

By Cara Doherty

My first memory of Hozier’s music is, like many, being enamoured with ‘Take Me to Church’. At the time, I knew little of its depth and story – recorded partly in his parent’s attic, the accompanying music video placed a glaring, unremitting light on discrimination against homosexuality. But even without its context, I was no stranger to its power. At about 11 years old, I can vividly remember the feeling of dancing to it as part of a medley (Imagine Dragons’ ‘Demons’ also featured) in a dance show piece intended to be a cutting commentary on the darker side of fairytales.

It can be hard to imagine now as it’s such a popular hit – billions of sales and streams match its widespread critical acclaim – but, back then, the song was certifiably ‘edgy’. It felt dangerous and exciting to sing of a “worship” with so much irony, such an alternative meaning. And not only was it challenging the political landscape, it was a rallying cry against the sanitised, repetitive pop that flooded radio stations and NOW That’s What I Call Music CDs. It is no surprise that the song propelled Hozier (or Andrew Hozier-Byrne) to immediate stardom.

Over the years since, I can’t pretend myself to be a Hozier superfan. Certain tracks from his debut album have kept me company, such as the toe-tapping ‘Jackie and Wilson’ or the thrumming hope of ‘Someone New’. But his sophomore album Wasteland, Baby! mostly passed me by, and I imagine future albums would have too. However, luckily, my friend asked if I’d be interested in seeing the Irish singer-songwriter on tour, and I had the good sense not to decline.

The treat of live music was compounded by a distinctly festive atmosphere as the audience crowded into the Wembley OVO Arena – not a seat was empty and anticipation bubbled high. His opening act The Last Dinner Party set the scene for a magical night as their lead singer Abigail Morris twirled across the stage, reminiscent of the airy nonchalance of Kate Bush or Florence and the Machine frontwoman Florence Welch.

Then, bathed in just the glow of a single spotlight, Hozier took to the stage for the opening track of Unreal Unearth: ‘De Selby (Part 1)’. This soft, delicate beginning felt like a lullaby, gently rocking us into the concert with Hozier’s signature silky smooth falsetto. As such, the infectiously dark bassline and steady drum beat of the following ‘De Selby (Part 2)’ kicked the evening into a new gear as the singer showcased his range.

The stage visuals were expertly done, making quick work of establishing the themes and mood of the concert – a line of upturned bare trees lined the top of the screen onto which was imposed a mixture of abstract interpretations of barren landscapes and stormy skies, as well as occasional popular scenes from his music videos. Always within a colour palette of deep-sea blues, purples and forest greens, one of my highest praises for the concert was its ability to create and maintain the often too-easily offered moniker of ‘atmospheric’.

Throughout, Hozier exhibited a good understanding of how to balance newer songs and beloved classics, with the crowd – even where we were, towards the back of the seated sections – largely up on their feet and dancing along to everything from ‘Movement’ to ‘Abstract (Psychopomp)’.

The highlight of the night was unexpected to me – fan-favourite ‘Cherry Wine’. This song tenderly depicts the experience of an abusive relationship where the victim still feels a great deal of love for their partner, a relationship in which “the blood is rare and as sweet as cherry wine”. It is a haunting and heartbreaking number that is deeply meaningful for many, especially as proceeds from the single go towards a range of domestic violence charities. Personally, I had always liked the song but never felt it in the hollow of my chest, but as Hozier stepped away from the microphone and left just the humble guitar to accompany the crowd, I was choked. The strangers around me sang softly, musically, closer to a whisper than a shout. They sang like they were singing to an old friend, or perhaps an old version of themselves – with compassion, with relief. I have plenty of fond memories of scream-singing along to my favourite songs at concerts with my friends, but this was the moment I realised that this show would be different.

Popular forms of live entertainment like musicals, comedy shows and gigs are often valued for the escapism that they offer to their audience, but Hozier’s show illuminated the merits of exactly the opposite – confronting darkness and demons, together, head on. The classical themes that run through his poetic discography – for instance, the album the tour is named after, is inspired by Dante’s Inferno – strengthen the overwhelming feeling of catharsis, of ancient wounds hurting and healing.

Hozier consistently reaffirmed his status as ‘not-just-a-performer’ throughout the concert. At times he was our preacher, our theologian, delivering secular sermons on the power of love; at other times our trusted teacher translating the Gaelic words and slippery metaphors that enhance his songs. Following the first set of bows, Hozier opened the three song-long encore with heartfelt political activism – utilising his platform, he reflected on the importance of music, creativity and bravery in fighting injustice. Punctuated by the resounding cheers of the crowd, Hozier paid homage to American singer and civil rights activist Mavis Staples, who he collaborated with on the song ‘Nina Cries Power’ from Wasteland, Baby! Before launching into this fierce and uplifting number, Hozier spoke out in favour of abortion rights and a ceasefire in Gaza, calling on the audience to stand up and fight for these causes too. “It’s not the wakin’, it’s the risin’” he then crooned, the heavy drum beat and gospel and blues-inspired background vocals lifting the crowd’s impassioned energy to fever pitch. In an era in which the pressure placed on celebrities to speak out about politics and injustice only ever seems to inspire either cold silence or out-of-touch advice, it was refreshing to hear a public figure not merely speaking, but speaking from the heart.

Closing out the concert was my personal favourite Hozier track, ‘Work Song’. A popular number from the singer’s eponymous debut album, “No grave can hold my body down, / I’ll crawl home to her” distilled the tender romance of the evening into a picturesque conclusion. Hozier has created such a home within his music for anyone who needs it. And from the rapturous final applause, I’d guess the audience thanks him for lending us a little shelter.

Editor’s Note: This performance took place on 15 December 2023 at the Wembley OVO Arena. The ‘Unreal Unearth Tour’ is ongoing until November 2024; more information can be found here.