Originally published on City Pages: June 3, 2019
The end is nigh and Hozier doesn’t want anyone to forget it.
At last night’s sold-out State Theatre show, the Irish singer-songwriter led the audience through a packed set list, spanning sounds from heavy blues-rock to folky acoustic tracks. He spoke between songs only to remind everyone to enjoy themselves — because we don’t have much longer to do so.
But Andrew Hozier Byrne didn’t really need to find the words to express this: The ideas were already present in the music. Although there are undercurrents of love and optimism, his sophomore album, Wasteland, Baby!, addresses ever-looming climate crises, political upheaval, and collapse on a cosmological scale.
This grim realism was present, though not as obviously, from the start of the set. The first song, “Would That I,” uses images of forests being felled and set alight. The simple yet steady percussion from drums and boots stomping the stage resembled the strike of an axehead, as Hozier sang, “The sound of the saw must be known by the tree.”
Each band member contributed backing vocals, on this track and nearly every other, creating rich and layered orchestrations throughout the show. Although Hozier was the star, he made sure the musicians’ talents were given their due. The musicians — some of which were singer-songwriters in their own right, he mentioned — took ownership with multiple drum, bass, and organ solos sprinkled throughout the set.
Paying respect to musicians who came before them, the band performed “Nina Cried Power,” which honors and namechecks African-American artists such as Nina Simone, Curtis Mayfield, Billie Holiday, and James Brown, as well as John Lennon, Woody Guthrie and Joni Mitchell. These musicians, Hozier has said, were not afraid to put politics into their music, to speak truth to power.
What this performance missed were the powerful vocals of Mavis Staples, who sings on the chorus and bridge of the record version. However, Hozier added an additional stanza in the first verse, clarifying the protest-song-inspired track’s call to action with lines like: “It’s not the talking, it’s the doing.”
When the song ended, he invited the audience to the front of the theater, saying if he had his way, everyone would be up on the stage with him anyway. He encouraged the audience to enjoy themselves by standing—and doing other things—in front of the stage as they saw fit. “If you wanted to do something illicit or maybe illegal, that’d be fine, too,” he said.“I guarantee I wouldn’t be the one to call the fucking cops.”
While Hozier was working on Wasteland, Baby! in 2016, a long-awaited follow-up to his self-titled 2014 debut, the Doomsday Clock was moved up to two minutes to midnight, the furthest it has ever gone. He realized then that he “was writing a few love songs for the end of the world,” he said, and these include the title track. “And the stance of the sea and the absence of green / are the death of all things that I’ve seen and unseen,” he sang on “Wasteland, Baby!”
Hozier briefly mentioned the Doomsday Clock in his introduction to “No Plan,” just to say, “This one is about something far better.” Rather than stop with the apocalypse, this track takes listeners to the end of the universe, referencing research by astrophysicist Katie Mack whose forthcoming book, The End of Everything, explains about how the universe will go dark.
Again, this needed little explanation, since the chorus laid it all out: “Sit here and watch the sunlight fade/Honey, enjoy, it’s getting late/There’s no plan, here’s no hand on the reins/As Mack explained, there will be darkness again.” The cutting blues riff seemed to grow fuzzier with each repetition due to Hozier’s guitar, which was made from a gasoline can. That fit well here, though it would’ve been too on the nose in the tracks about ecological disaster.
Sure, the show was a little grim. But for anyone who follows the news (or even glances at a TV while waiting for coffee, or just sees those articles that your cousin, you know, the one who’s all political, shares on Facebook) it felt accurate. Maybe that’s why Wasteland, Baby! debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts in March and why multiple tracks have enjoyed so much radio play.
Despite the constant reality check, Hozier remained upbeat, imploring people to have a good time. And we did. The audience sang along throughout and took it up a few decibels for songs off the first album, including “To Be Alone,” “Jackie and Wilson” and, of course, “Take Me to Church.” Hozier changed up his well-known songs, including a slower, funkier version of “Someone New” and a stripped down rendition of “From Eden.”
Throughout the night, Hozier came across as a nice, sincere guy. After a three-song encore, which ended with the slow, brooding track “Work Song,” he thanked pretty much everyone involved with the concert, from the musicians in his band and the opening act, Bailen, to the guitar tech, merch guy and lighting crew.
The concert could be summed up in Hozier’s explanation of “Almost (Sweet Music),” a song that references many jazz artists and standards that made an impact on him. When it comes to both the universe and the music, we’re all just “trying to escape the inescapable”—the fact that eventually the everything must end.
Random notebook dump: How to describe the excellent opening act, Bailen? It’s like the instrumentation of Jeff Buckley with the vocals of Nickel Creek, and maybe a dose of Fleetwood Mac with contemporary indie rock? However you would describe the group of three siblings from New York City, their music featured great guitar work, interesting chord progressions, and incredible harmonies, all of which were present on “I Was Wrong.”
Overheard in the crowd: Called out afterguitarist/vocalist Julia Bailen of the opening act, Bailen, said it would be “on brand” for the band to get a MySpace account: “Does anyone under 22 even know what that is?”
Would That I
Dinner & Diatribes
Nina Cried Power
Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene
To Be Alone
Almost (Sweet Music)
Jackie and Wilson
Moment’s Silence (Common Tongue)
Take Me to Church
To Noise Making (Sing)
Note: This concert review originally appeared on the City Pages website on June 3, 2019, and as that Minnesota alt-weekly is, sadly, now defunct and beginning to randomly remove articles, I wanted to preserve it online here.