The Irish artist who once swept the world with his Grammy song of the year “Take Me to Church” stepped back into the arena last week with his new EP “Nina Cried Power”. The album dropped without much warning or press, and it has yet to hit any of the top lists on Billboard. However, Hozier has always seemed more comfortable with anonymity than fame. In an interview with Billboard, Hozier said that after the blinding success of his first album he “sort of hermited [himself]” and spent much of the next two years in a period of creative seclusion in the countryside.
The album opens with its namesake, which draws heavily on influences of American R&B, particularly on the music of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s not enough for Hozier to simply reference these artists through his musical style, instead, he calls them out by name. Nina Cried Power even features gospel singer Mavis Staples, who breaks away from the choir to assert that “Power has been cried by those stronger than me/ Straight in the face of those who tell you to rattle your chains/ If you love being free.” Their duet is full of strength and soulful runs. At times, it is unclear whether they are singing or shouting. The absence of subtle harmonies and complex chords is well suited to the song’s message: fight, shout, and sing what is yours into existence. “Nina Cried Power” stands simultaneously as an anthem to protest music and as a criticism of the sort of hollow activism or wokeness that dominates media today.=
Of the four songs on his EP, “Nina Cried Power” is by far the most forceful and resonant. His second song, “NFWMB”, is an uncharacteristically tame, lyrical, mournful ballad sung directly to another person, named by the song only as “his baby”. It opens with a reference to the W. B. Yeats poem The Second Coming: “The end was soon/ To Bethlehem it slouched and then/ Must have caught a good look at you.” The song is decidedly somber and feels particularly subdued after the soulful cry of the first track. However, the chorus still rings with a quiet form of rebellion, as he hauntingly tells us “Nothing fucks with my baby.” It’s a tender and perhaps intentionally vague refrain which both celebrates the resilience of his “baby” while mourning the fact that she has so much to fight through and overcome.
Though the song is tame and lyrically repetitive, I found the lyrics of “NFWMB” to be the most beautiful of the album, reading more like a love poem than a song from a hit artist. “If I were born as a blackthorn tree/ I’d wanna be held by you/ Felled by you/ Feed the pyre of your enemies.” It’s haunting, obscure, and incredibly personal- an antithesis to the fame we have come to associate him with.
The third piece feels the most familiar to fans of his first album. “Moment’s Silence (Common Tongue)” holds a lot of the same themes as “Take Me to Church”, including intense religious imagery and salvation through moments of physical communion. It’s a familiar theme of shaking off authority that tries to control or restrict access to love in all forms, and while the tempo is more upbeat than “NFWMB” or “Shrike”, “Moment’s Silence (Common Tongue)” misses a beat somehow in the overall scheme of the album. The blues and stomp influences drive it forward, but it doesn’t haunt the listener after it plays, doesn’t drive us to fire or grand emotion. “Moment’s Silence (Common Tongue)” feels more like a Hozier equivalent of a palette cleanser before his fourth and most distinctive song.
“Shrike”, the final piece on the EP, stands out not just from “Nina Cried Power”, but from Hozier’s work as a whole. For an album named for and shaped by American influences, “Shrike” uniquely calls back to his Irish roots. He isn’t shouting in this song, nor is he whispering or crooning: it’s the most lyrical piece, the most that it feels like singing. It’s a fitting conclusion for the album as a whole, evoking the image of a bird presenting its long-dead prey on a barrier of thorns for all the world to see. He both recognizes the irony of the painfully slow, process of producing art while also recognizing that it is all a bird knows to do. “I couldn’t utter my love when it counted/ Ah, but I’m singing like a bird, ’bout it now.” “Shrike” repeats the theme of being reborn, and although it’s a slow, reflective piece, it allows the EP to end on a hopeful note.
It’s no surprise that the album didn’t crash charts or dominate radio stations- it’s a more niche album, more pensive, and darker as well. Yet the album acknowledges the weight of all of its own obscurity in the context of a changing, darkening world. “Nina Cried Power” is far from helpless or nihilistic. It’s a reminder that even when speaking (or singing) out seems futile, we must continue to do so. We can find healing and strength through rebellion and love so that we can continue to cry power.