“I’m definitely coming out of the last three years having done plenty of internal janitorial work,” says Hozier. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Arts and Entertainment

Review: Hozier’s artful journey through the circles of hell in ‘Unreal Unearth’

“Unreal Unearth” is a painfully beautiful journey through an array of humanity’s rawest emotions and sins.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/aubreybertino/" target="_self">Aubrey Bertino</a>

Aubrey Bertino

November 8, 2023

Hozier recently released his third studio album “Unreal Unearth” and it’s some of his best work yet. Grappling with religious themes and the darkest parts of life and love that most songwriters merely skirt the surface of, it’s another addition to his deeply thought-provoking discography.

Perhaps most interestingly, the central theme throughout the album is based upon “Dante’s Inferno” and the nine circles of hell, certain songs from the album representing each. A quick explanation for this concept is that each circle of hell represents a sin, and those who reside there are the ones who have committed the respective sins. As the circles go deeper, the sins become more sinister, more evil. 

The album begins with two sister songs: “De Selby (Part One)” and “De Selby (Part Two).” The title is based upon a character from Flann O’Brien’s novel “The Third Policeman.” In short, De Selby is a raving philosopher who is dead, but does not yet realize it. “Part One” is a haunting melody, ending in Hozier singing in his native language of Gaelic. The song bleeds seamlessly into “Part Two,” which comes with a quicker tempo, a perfect cross between folk and alternative rock. 

The first circle of hell, limbo, is represented by “First Time,” the album’s third track. Limbo, if you don’t know, is the state between Heaven and Hell. The beginning of the song paints a vivid picture of a life without meaning, like a limbo, before the lover archetype is introduced. Life then has meaning, represented by the line, “And some part of me came alive/The first time that you called me baby.” After the lover departs later on, life is once again empty, meaningless, limbo. 

One of the most interesting songs on the album is “Francesca.” The title is a reference to a 12th century noble-woman. She was executed for crimes of adultery after cheating on her husband with his brother, Paolo. The song, unsurprisingly, represents the second circle of hell, lust. One lyric, “If someone asked me at the end, I’d tell them put me back in it,” portrays the overcoming nature of desire, the reckless abandon with which humans will pursue it, no matter the consequences. The metaphor that despite being executed for it, Francesca would do everything the same, motivated by her lust for Paolo. 

Next up is the heart-wrenching melody of “I, Carrion (Icarian).” It follows the myth of Daedalus and his son, Icarus. If you don’t know the story already, it follows the father and son as they build a pair of wings for each other to escape the prison they’re currently trapped in. But, after flying too close to the sun, the wax on the wings melts, leaving them to fall back to the ground. 

Throughout the song the lover archetype present in almost all of Hozier’s music represents the sun. The narrator is wildly, passionately in love with her, and she is just too powerful, too all-encompassing to love him. And yet, he keeps coming back, keeps feeling the singe of her melancholy affection and returning time and time again. The dynamic is represented perfectly by the lyric, “And though I burn, how could I fall? When I am lifted by everything you say to me.”

“Eat Your Young” is one of the album’s singles, and as you might’ve guessed from the title, it represents the third circle of hell, gluttony. The song begins with the line “I’ve starving, darling. Let me put my lips to something. Let me wrap my teeth around the world.” The last of those lines perfectly encompasses the concept of gluttony, the desire for more. So much that a person would be, metaphorically, willing to eat the world away from everybody else to fulfill their own desires. 

Skipping ahead to the ninth and final circle of hell, treachery, whose representative song is “Unknown/Nth. The song grapples with fierce loyalty to someone contradicting the realization that they are continuously hurting you. The ballad begins with a slew of dedications and promises made to a lover: “I swam a lake of fire, I’d have walked across the floor of any sea.” All these sacrifices he would have gladly made due to the angelic way he viewed the lover, “So I thought you were like an angel to me.”

Directly after that line, the first beginnings of realization occur, the sinking knowledge that despite his love for her, it will never be reciprocated in the same way, “Funny how true colors shine in darkness and in secrecy.” While we never truly discover what the lover does to betray him, this suggests there were secrets, perhaps an affair in allusion to the adulterous themes present in “Francesca”.

The song finishes with a grandiose bridge, representing the acceptance of a lover’s betrayal, with the feeling of commitment on his part still lingering behind: “Do you know I could break beneath the weight. Of the goodness love I still carry for you? That I’d walk so far just to take. The injury of finally knowing you.” Acknowledging that while it will ultimately hurt him, he will keep coming back to her again and again. Feeling the “injury” of her tainted affection. 

This album, a twisted deep dive into every ugly facet of love that rarely makes appearances in love ballads, stands as a beacon for some of Hozier’s best song-writing yet. The emotion poured into his music is blatantly evident in every note, the harrowing journey through “Dante’s Inferno” that he takes listeners on is absolutely unforgettable. I would suggest this album to anybody, but especially for any fans of alternative folk-rock music. Hozier truly is one of the best songwriters of this decade, and this album is a testament to this fact. 

Unreal Unearth is available on all music streaming platforms now.