Andrew John Hozier-Byrne, known simply as Hozier, released his third album last week to the great joy and excitement of his loyal fanbase.
In “Unreal Unearth,” the Irish folk/soul singer packs in the literary references, this time citing Jonathan Swift’s 1729 satirical essay, “A Modest Proposal,” and Flann O’Brien’s “The Third Policeman.”
While there are many mythological elements alluded to throughout (“I, Carrion [Icarian], “Son of Nyx,” “Abstract” [Psychopomp]), the overarching structure of this album is inspired by Dante Alighieri’s “La Divina Commedia: Inferno.”
In “Unreal Unearth,” the singer/songwriter follows in Dante’s and Virgil’s footsteps through the nine circles of Hell, and we listen from Hozier’s perspective as he wrestles with love, heartbreak, betrayal, and the pressing issues that burden our world. Each circle outlined in Inferno is represented on the album, but I will only focus on the references and applications of three of the nine.
“I’m starvin’, darlin’
Let me put my lips to somethin’
Let me wrap my teeth around the world”
These are the opening lyrics to Hozier’s gritty and graphic sixth track, “Eat Your Young,” which is placed in the third circle: gluttony. Punishment for the gluttonous in “Inferno” is an eternity spent crawling in the muck of a foul sty while being pelted with ice and rain.
Even though Hozier is using traditional visuals of hunger and food for this category, the song is about how young people are treated in society and the economic and social issues that make life difficult for them.
“I was reflecting on what I felt now in this spirit of the times of perpetual short-term gain and long-term blindness,” Hozier told Apple Music. “The increasing levels of precarious living, poverty, job insecurity, rental crisis, property crisis, climate crisis and a generation that’s inheriting all of that and one generation that’s enjoyed the spoils of it.”
As mentioned in the beginning, Jonathan Swift’s satirical essay, “A Modern Proposal,” is referenced in the last lines of the chorus for this track:
“Skinnin’ the children for a war drum
Puttin’ food on the table sellin’ bombs and guns
It’s quicker and easier to eat your young”
The satirical essay published in 1729 offered an unconventional method to combating poverty in 18th century Ireland—fatten up the uneducated, poor children to be sold and consumed like animals. Swift even goes so far as to come up with new recipes and propose how much kids would sell for, a twisted example of political arithmetic.
“A Modest Proposal” was written after about 500 years of English occupation and colonization in Ireland. Swift’s parody was a frustrated response to the exploitative English government and an apathetic Irish people, bogged down by poverty in an overpopulated country.
Sean Moore writes, “The figure of the cannibal may signify how national debt and the mortgaging of future public revenues needed to amortize that debt metaphorically devoured the posterity of the colonized Irish natives.”
“Eat Your Young” is a memorable track that calls out the gluttony of those in power and how they devour all they can for themselves—resources, opportunities, money, clean water, fresh air, etc.—all at the expense of young people and the future of our planet.
Like Swift, Hozier is “telling us that pure economic arguments make for poor public policies.”
“Oh, if the car ran, the car was enough
If the sun shone on us, it’s a plus
And the tank was always filled up
Only enough for our gettin’ there”
Brandi Carlile, folk-rock singer/songwriter, joins Hozier in the fourth circle of Hell for the seventh track, “Damage Gets Done.”
The greedy hoarders and misers are held in the fourth circle, where they are forced to push heavy weights until they ultimately crash into another soul and must start over again.
This song follows two young people living it up without a care in the world, enjoying what little they have. It is when they grow older in this consumerist society that they become numb and dissatisfied with what they have.
Most of us are constantly presented with new things to buy. Every social media app has a shopping function now. We hop on Instagram or Facebook to see what our friends are up to but have to wade through ad after ad in order to do so.
“One time we would want for nothin’ (One time we had it all, love)
We knew what our love was worth (When we had nothing)
Now we’re always missing something (I miss when)
I miss when we did not need much”
In addition to the more obvious takeaway of the effects of greed in our world, the treatment of young people continues to be a theme with this track. Blaming Gen Z or Millennials for all our problems today when they are the ones inheriting the crises is a common cop out.
This phenomenon is perfectly demonstrated in Quartz’s article, “The 2,500-year-old history of adults blaming the younger generations.”
“But I know being reckless and young
Is not how the damage gets done”
Hozier tells Variety, “A young generation that really have very little to their name, have the least power of their respective populations, and the least amount of wealth to their name are always oftentimes considered the troublemakers.”
Entering the seventh circle of Hell on track 12, “Butchered Tongue,” Hozier teaches us a history lesson about the violence and brutality inflicted upon indigenous communities.
The seventh circle is divided up into three rings, the first of which is designated for those violent against people and property (cough! colonizers. cough!). These folks are doomed to suffer in a river of boiling blood called Phlegethon.
Referencing the Wexford Rebellion of 1798, an unsuccessful Irish uprising that occurred against British rule, Hozier laments:
“The ears were chopped from young men if the pitch cap didn’t kill them.
They are buried without scalp in the shattered bedrock of our home.”
Pitchcapping is a torture tactic that was used by British soldiers against Irish rebels. They subjected their victims to ‘caps’ of boiling tar and gunpowder and then would set the cap on fire. This would severely burn, blind, and ultimately scalp victims dead.
This rebellion was hundreds of years in the making. In 1169, Ireland was colonized by the Anglo-Norman Empire, and in the process much of their culture was corrupted by the English occupiers. Language was one of the first to be impacted.
Targeting a culture’s language is a common tactic used by occupiers to assert dominance and control and represents another form of violence present in the song.
Hozier sings in Gaeilge in the opening track, “De Selby (Part 1),” which is a beautiful and symbolic way to begin the album considering the story told of his ancestors in “Butchered Tongue.” While the Irish language was not completely erased and many still know and learn it today, most people in Ireland speak English.
“Butchered Tongue” also references Apalachicola, Florida, Hushpuckena, Mississippi and Gweebarra Bay in the republic of Ireland—each of these places having their own stories of occupation and colonization.
In “Unreal Unearth,” Hozier digs deeper into the themes that skyrocketed his popularity a decade ago when he released his first ever single, “Take Me to Church,”—a song that acted as Hozier’s indictment of the Church and has since racked up more than 2 billion streams since its release in 2013.
In this third album, he masterfully writes about the economic and political experiences of people today using Greek mythology and Irish history. Hozier’s activism continues to be a prevalent force in his writing.
After my first few listens, my favorite tracks from the album are “I, Carrion (Icarian),” “Son of Nyx,” “Unknown / Nth,” and “First Light.”
Offering a positive review, Rolling Stone writes, “his literary allusions never feel clichéd or heavy-handed. Instead, they serve as a structure for breathtaking lyrics that give each song a deep sense of discovery and familiarity.”
Hozier’s artistry is otherworldly and his lyricism so elevated that it feels like it was written before cell phones and WiFi, and yet so expertly puts into words what life is like for young people in this digital age of consumerism trying to survive the high cost of living.
Creative coordinator for publishing and marketing at Good Faith Media. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications from Missouri Southern State University and her Associate of Arts degree from Ozarks Technical Community College in Springfield, Missouri. Chisholm was an Ernest C. Hynds Jr. intern with GFM for the summer of 2021.