Despite Dante Alighieri’s distinctive absence, Hozier’s latest album Unreal Unearth, released on the 18th of August, brings the listener on a journey through the Inferno. In this iteration it is not Dante who is the protagonist but indie-folk-pop hero Hozier who finds himself in the selva oscura, voyaging into the clamorous pits of his own hell.
This is not the artist’s first time engaging with political or theological ideas—his breakout song ‘Take Me to Church’ might spring to mind—but it is his most ambitious engagement with such themes. This vision of sin, spanning sixteen tracks presents a weeping confessional reflection into our humanity; a whispering melancholy of voice amongst aching soundscapes. This is no gimmick— the artist is really in these circles of hell, really with these characters and he’s inviting us to listen in.
While many reviews have maintained this eclectic tracklist lacks musical cohesion,1 the continuity of this album is maintained thematically according to the Inferno Hozier cites as its inspiration.2 Each track details his encounters with the circles of hell and his relationship with the people there. Might this disjointedness imply and implicate the listener, whereby they are brought out of a mode of passive meditation and into a mode of active contemplation? The disrupted tempo and rhythm with each track force the listener to turn away from passive listening, lifting them inside the music with the author. The listener not just bearing witness to his confession, not absolving him of guilt, but is an active companion on this descent into hell.
The portentous first tracks ‘De Selby (Part 1)’ and ‘De Selby (Part 2)’ fittingly reference the outlandish fictional philosopher of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, who is (unknowingly) also in the afterlife. Hozier indulges his inner Dante in these tracks while also employing the Irish folk music tradition, as in the outro of ‘De Selby (Part 1)’. This emphasis on vernacular language might herald the political stature Hozier will come to embrace throughout this album, articulated most vividly in ‘Butchered Tongue’, which criticises the extinction of the Irish language at the hands of English Colonialism. Yet the tone here is not one of blame but an insistent contritional timbre. The singer finds himself in the same place as these sinners in hell. There is a widening of culpability involving him, and the listener, too.
With the overture of De Selby, Hozier trudges through the Inferno, from Limbo (‘First Time’) to the Circles of Violence and Fraud (‘I, Carrion (Icarian)’) all the way through to the edge of the Inferno where the album concludes with a song about light; about the ‘chiaro mondo’ (Inf 34:134). Dante describes this in the final canto of the Inferno, when he finally breaks from the darkness and beholds again the light: ‘E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle’ [Now we came out, and once more saw the stars].3
The sky set to burst
The gold and the rust
The colour erupts
You filling my cup
The sun coming up4
The levity of this final song enacts the solution to the problems, where the grief and the tragedy of the album are renewed in this image of light and hope, where lament turns to song.
Is this an accurate retelling of Dante’s Inferno? Not really. Although the album is loosely hung on the structure of the first cantica of the Commedia, it takes seriously the trials and narratives Dante addresses. It rises to the humanity Dante discerns but through the lens of his own life. Perhaps that’s why Dante gets little mention. It’s Hozier’s own hell; where he himself questions and deals with the problems of politics, religion and ethics. The album might well be called Unreal Unearth, but this attention to the problems of today speaks to Hozier’s very real, earthly grievances. This haunting confession reflects on the dark path we all find ourselves on and the journey we must take. The journey where the only conclusion is hope.