At Hozier’s sold-out show at L.A.’s Greek Friday night, one of the first things you couldn’t help noticing on stage —because it’s still an anomaly — was that his eight-piece lineup was half-male, half-female. Knowing his penchant for socially conscious songs, his decrial of “the anthems of rape culture” in his lyrics, and a general female-friendliness to his appeal, it’s easy to figure this gender parity is a conscious one and think: That is soooo Hozier. Which it is … and so effective, too, like just about every choice he’s made so far in his short, charmed career. On the most practical level, if you can bring in that much female harmony while also getting ace players in the bargain, why wouldn’t you? But it also makes for a good visual emblem of some of the other dual energies Hozier is playing with in his music: darkness and enlightenment; romantic hero and cad; raw blues dude and slick pop hero. He’s got a lot more going on than just being an earnest do-gooder. (Although he does do good, earnestly.)
During Friday’s hour-and-three-quarters set, Hozier focused largely on material from this year’s sophomore album, “Wasteland, Baby!,” which sounded good enough on record but almost uniformly improved in the live experience. Sometimes the upgrade came from making full use of the multi-instrumentalists on hand. The first album’s “Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene” now had Hozier on guitar facing off against violinist Emily Kohavi, trading solos — and if it’s hard to hear an electric guitar/fiddle duel without automatically thinking “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” it was one of many welcome moments making use of the MVP skills of Kohavi, the newest addition to the band. Other times, the improvements on the album versions just had to do with Hozier allowing himself louder and gutsier guitar tones. He’s a bit like Prince, in that way — someone you’d happily listen to playing a very nasty-sounding six-string all night, although he has so many other stylistic fish to fry, which in this case means a still slightly greater emphasis on acoustic finger-picking.
For somebody who made his name on as forlorn but powerful an anthem as his 2014 breakout smash “Take Me to Church,” and who can milk that melodrama for all it’s worth, Hozier has a lot of other modes he can default to. He treads very lightly into the area of soul with songs like “Almost (Sweet Music),” the lyrics of which consist of either name-checking or alluding to some of the great jazz vocal classics of the 20th century, in an idiom that’s not so much jazzy itself as folk-R&B. You could almost cite it as the subtle kind of Memphis-swing thing Justin Timberlake should aspire to, if the tricky polyrhythm and oddly chopped up meters Hozier adds as wrinkles weren’t so un-replicable. Bringing up Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” as the night’s sole cover also established that early ‘70s era and sound as an influences he’d like to make perfectly clear. At the other extreme, this son of a blues musician can hard back to those roots so well, in noisy numbers like “Moment’s Silence (Common Tongue)” and the brand new “Jack Boot Jump,” that he could give the Black Keys a run for their money.
“Jack Boot Jump,” which is scheduled to go on an EP of completely fresh material that Hozier said he plans to put out before Christmas, was possibly the highlight of the night, even though — or because — it stripped his excellent band down to just him and longtime drummer Rory Doyle. Having earlier played the current album’s “Nina Cried Power,” which is maybe more of a tribute to other historic protest songs than one of its own, Hozier gave a lengthy introduction to “Jack Boot” indicating that he’s aware of the traps that come with the territory. “I do have some reservations about the words ‘protest song’ and ‘protest music,’” he admitted. “But if you’re familiar with an artist called Woody Guthrie, he wrote the evergreen anthem ‘Tear the Fascists’ down. I was kind of looking into songs in that sort of tradition, that singing out, and I was worried that this is 2019; it’s a very unsubtle way to approach songwriting.” But, he added, “it was a funny few weeks, with 70 people shot in Hong Kong and arrests obviously in Moscow; Chile now at the moment also. And I was thinking, forget about subtle art — what is not subtle is this murder of protesters, and what is not subtle is the jack boot coming down in Orwell’s picture of the future: ‘If you want to imagine the future, imagine a jack boot stomping on a human face forever,’ that chilling quote from ‘1984.’ Anyway, I was just thinking, yeah, f— it, it’s not subtle, but let’s do it.” His electric guitar proceeded to be a machine that kills fascists, and also just slayed as maybe the most rock ‘n’ roll thing he’s written. (Evidence of the new song on the web is scant, or should be, anyway, since he begged the audience “in good faith” not to film it.)
If there’s a knock people have on Hozier, it tends to be the sincerity thing. He’s a nice guy who’s finishing first, which doesn’t necessarily help him become an indie-rock darling or Pitchfork favorite. (Predictably, “Wasteland, Baby!” got a 4.8 rating there — that’s out of 10, not 5.) At the Greek, there was an almost wholesome feeling that would’ve been an immediate turnoff to anyone who insists on having their rock rough, starting with his graciousness in repeatedly naming the band members and repeatedly thanking his opening act (Madison Ryann Ward, a fetchingly husky-voiced Oklahoman filling in on this part of the tour for a laryngitis-stricken Freya Ridings). That extended to a sense of uplift in many of the songs that doesn’t always match the themes of the material. But then, there was the impossible good cheer and attractiveness of the young players, to match Hozier’s own; this is a group where everyone looks as if they could be in Taylor Swift’s band or actually looks like Taylor Swift. The swoon factor in Hozier’s appeal is undeniably high, and it’s safe to say no one left Griffith Park less smitten.
But ladies (and gentlemen), do be aware that Hozier has some dark-side moments that can almost make Leonard Cohen look like Stephen Bishop. The only time he really overtly accentuated that in concert was in introducing and playing the new album’s “No Plan,” a love song that is also an amiable statement of atheism in which Hozier reminds his beloved that the universe is going to collapse upon itself someday. This may be rather like the gambit in which the ‘50s boy gets the girl to make out with him in a fallout shelter, but in any case, Hozier didn’t stint on the end-of-all-things aspect of it, even putting up on screen behind the band a statement from astrophysicist Dr. Katie Mack pointing out humankind’s and the galaxy’s ultimate fate. (“Honestly I never really imagined I’d end up being name-checked in a song for talking about how the universe is eventually going to fade out and die so this is all very exciting for me,” Mack tweeted in replay earlier in the year.) Suffice it to say that with that soulful a vintage ‘70s groove and that fuzz-tastic a guitar line, many babies will be conceived to the tune of “No Plan,” whether it foresees generational lines ending in a godless black hole or not.
Other Hozier songs reveal darker gets more estimable the more you dig into it. With its bird talk, “Shrike” sounds sweet enough, till you realize that a shrike is a kind of bird that impales its prey on thorns, which does add a rather bloody metaphoric undertone to what sounds like a reasonably pacifist breakup song. “Dinner & Diatribes,” meanwhile, is just deeply horny, not thorny. The most brooding song of the set, “Talk,” has verses where Hozier sings in lofty, literary terms about the romantic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, only to reveal in the chorus that he’s talking to this woman in such high-minded terms because he just wants to charm her into the sack. As a piece of writing, it’s hilarious, establishing a devilish side of Hozier it’s good to hear. As a piece of performance, it’s just sexy.
But as enriching as it is to realize Hozier has a healthy sense of humor in his writing, bad-boy wit is never going to be what you’re going to come away from a Hozier album or show with. The main part of Friday’s concert ended, as expected, with “Take Me to Church,” his outraged take on abuse and homophobia in the scandalized Catholic church — which just happens to be easily taken as a lusty hymn to sexuality. Following that, the large band returned to a stage that had now been decked out in some kind of ivy, as Hozier talked about his love for the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney (whose last words he has tattooed on his arm) and, “since I’ve come this far,” went ahead and recited his poem “Mint,” sharing his hero’s affection for the plant and its “tenacity for life.”
Tenacity is likely to be a buzzword, too, for Hozier, given his leaps and gains as a writer-performer and seeming level head atop his tree-top shoulders. Taller still of voice, musical dexterity and good will — and still just 29 — he’s somebody the swooners and even some cynics should feel good about settling in with for a very long Irish ride.