Art inspires art; this has been a truth for as long as people have been creating. The alternative singer Hozier takes this concept to a whole new level in his third album, “Unreal Unearth,” which reimagines the story of Dante Alighieri’s 13th century work, “Inferno.” Hozier explained how he drew inspiration from this famous work in an interview with GRAMMY.com: “[Dante’s ‘Inferno’] is a poem about a person who’s wandering through this sort of underworld space, and in each circle, they meet with a new person who shares their grievance, their pain, their experience. That was something I allowed myself to play with a little bit — that each song starts with my voice, but it allows into itself and the license to just let the song grow to where it needs to be. Let the voice explore the idea that it needs to explore.”
There are 16 tracks on the album, each one taking you further into the underworld. There is a clear line of thought throughout the entire album. It does not feel like a collection of individual songs, but rather a story, woven together by melodies and brilliant lyricism that allows each song to flow into the next, like the chapters in a book. The cohesiveness of this album sets it apart from Hozier’s other work. Each harmony – each word – feels carefully chosen to transport the listener to this new universe.
When the album was released on Aug. 18, “Francesca” quickly became a fan favorite. At its heart, “Francesca” is a love story, but it is not a happy one. This song delves into the depths of commitment and love, drawing parallels to the tragic love story of Francesca de Rimini, one of the souls trapped in the infernal circle. While her affair with Paolo Malatesta was condemned as a sinful act, Hozier’s interpretation reframes their story, infusing it with humanity and depth. He portrays them not as victims of their circumstances but as an unwavering force confronting the storm, refusing to be broken by it. The final line of the song proclaims “heaven is not fit to house a love like you and I.”
“Eat Your Young” is unlike anything I have ever heard before. It manages to capture an almost sexy quality while at the same criticizing the military-industrial complex. “Eat Your Young” takes place in the fourth circle of hell: greed. This song encapsulates everything that makes this album so amazing; it’s unique, thoughtful and well-produced. The music drives the story along and helps show the hunger of the narrator. The lyrics provide haunting visuals that stick with the listener long after the song has ended: “Skininn’ the children for a war drum / putting food on the table selling bombs and guns / it’s quicker and easier to eat your young.” This song’s brilliance lies in its ability to be both intellectually sharp and emotionally resonant. It challenges the listener to confront uncomfortable truths while immersing them in a musical experience that is as thought-provoking as it is engaging.
My favorite track on the album, a song by the name “Unknown/Nth” tells the story from the ninth circle of hell. It’s heartbreaking, detailing what it feels like to be unknown in a relationship. Hozier encapsulates an innate human feeling, a desire to be seen, to be known, to not have to constantly be translating your soul, but instead have someone who understands the very being of who you are. This song talks about what it feels like to yearn for that understanding while constantly falling short. The betrayal in the song is not that the subject has left, it’s that they never understood in the first place. “It ain’t the being alone / It ain’t the empty home, baby / You know I’m good on my own, baby, you know, it’s more the being unknown,” Hozier sings in the chorus.
Others have criticized the album, saying that the production takes away from the meaning and impactfulness of the lyrics. “Sometimes Unreal Unearth’s poppy production palette – the crisp electronic drums, the over-compressed vocals – can downplay just how idiosyncratic Hozier’s songwriting is, actively distracting from a song’s subject matter,” writer Amina Cattaui said in The Michigan Daily. However, this “mix-match” seems to be part of the appeal. It’s true that Hozier doesn’t dumb down his songs, and often tackles serious topics in his work, but the poppy musicality can make his work more approachable. Listening to music should be fun, and those moments when Hozier takes an almost light-hearted approach to his subject matter only improves the listening experience.
In the end, “Unreal Unearth” is a brilliant album that takes the stories of Dante’s “Inferno” and breathes new life into them. Hozier is able to tackle dense and complex ideas and emotions without ever coming across as pretentious. The journey that unfurls throughout the album is magnificent and showcases what makes Hozier’s music different. “Unreal Unearth” is Hozier’s best album yet, and totally worth a listen.