In 2013, Hozier broke through with “Take Me To Church,” a somber folk song that became an unlikely Top 40 smash, catapulting the twentysomething Irish singer-songwriter into momentary pop stardom. But after releasing his debut album in 2014, he’s waited five years before putting out a follow up.
Turns out, that was a wise move. Wasteland, Baby! is relatively free of the too-high expectations that tend to plague young artist’s anticipated second albums. In addition to the soul-searching title track, songs like “Nina Cried Power and “Shrike” show new depth. The former, an ode to musical truth-telling with a fitting appearance from Mavis Staples is a welcome pop-protest left-turn that finds Hozier conjuring the power of his record collection as a means of symbolic resistance. The latter, a Celtic-lilted torch-song, features his sharpest lyricism to date: “I couldn’t utter my love when it counted,” he sings, “Ah, but I’m singing like a bird ’bout it now.”
And yet, Hozier still spends much of the album burdened, in one form or another, by the success of “Take Me To Church.” That song’s spectral presence can be found in moments like “Almost” and “To Noise Making (Sing),” songs that can feel like they’re merely piling on feel-good folksy handclaps and grandiose gospel choirs in the hopes of landing on a chill-coffeehouse Spotify playlist.
Nevertheless, Wasteland, Baby! has enough encouraging displays of maturation to feel like a transitional moment for Hozier. At its best, the album carves out a space for the singer to work out his creative tensions as he finds new ways to make his straight folk influences more accessible without losing anything along the way.