Hozier’s latest album, Unreal Unearth, can be described as a concept album loosely based around Dante’s Inferno. In listening, the audience is taken through the nine circles of hell and experiences different kinds of heartbreak. But the Inferno isn’t the only reference - the album is laden with nods to Irish fiction like Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, the devastating impacts of British imperialism, and classical mythology.
It’s beneficial to look at music using as many influences as possible to paint a complete picture. I’d like to take a look at three different songs from Unreal Unearth and pull together the Inferno and Greek mythology to grasp as much of the meaning of the songs as possible.
“Son of Nyx” marks the halfway point of the album and is the only instrumental track. Filling one of two spots dedicated to the sixth circle of hell (heresy), the song pulls themes from other tracks in a way that distorts them. For instance, the listener can hear a warped “see how it shines” from “Abstract (Psychopomp)” and the choruses of songs like “Francesca” in minor keys.
Heresy can generally be defined as opinions that go against the norm; Hozier interprets this by distorting other songs on the album, thus removing them from their original context, as a way to take us through Hell.
As some may know, Nyx is the goddess of night, and mother to thousands of children: the Oneiroi, the Keres, Aether and Hemera, Eris, Nemesis, and so on. Specifically, though, there are three sons who I feel this song specifically points to: Thanatos, Hypnos, or Charon.
If the son in question were Thanatos, the god of non-violent death, each song could then represent the flashing of a memory as one dies. Neuroscientists have found evidence that the brain emits a massive amount of energy before going out, lending credence to the idea of “life flashing before your eyes.”
If the son of the song were Hypnos, the god of sleep, the distortion lends itself to the way that dreams can become twisted up with memories and fantasies until you can’t tell the difference. And in dreams, everything seems mostly logical. You barely even notice the strangeness until you’re awake.
Lastly, if the son were Charon, the ferryman of the Underworld, “Son of Nyx” would represent the actual journey of traveling through Hell, watching where you came from and seeing where you’ll go next.
“Son of Nyx” - regardless of who the exact son is - conjures the image of the way that memories can come, go, and even change.
“Abstract (Psychopomp)” takes place in the eighth circle of hell, fraud, in one of the divisions dedicated to souls being split apart and wounded. Fittingly, the song itself reflects on watching endings: the endings of life, like “the poor thing in the road its eye still glistening”, and the ending of a relationship. The souls of animals are literally being split from their bodies, while the narrator’s memories are being split until he can only see them as “an abstract from a moment of my life.”
A psychopomp is a figure seen in many cultures, who guides souls to the afterlife. In Greek mythology, there are a number of different psychopomps: Charon with his boat across the Styx; Hermes the shepherd of souls; Thanatos taking those with peaceful deaths; and the Keres escorting those with violent ones.
The narrator here serves as both one being punished and a psychopomp. He describes watching the light go out in animals’ eyes and “the earth from a distance/ see how it shines.” What Hozier is possibly describing might fit a more Christian view of Heaven, where it is an entity above and separate from Earth; still, he takes on the role of Hermes in escorting the taken souls to their final resting place.
Perhaps my favourite song on the album, “I, Carrion (Icarian)” is set in the third circle of hell, where those who lusted in life spend forever being buffeted by a hurricane. The song serves two purposes: describing the highs of love and the risk of lows you have to accept; and Icarus himself being so ecstatic to be free that he denies even the possibility of falling by saying “and though I burn, how could I fall.” By far, “I, Carrion (Icarian)” is the most outwardly classical piece on the album.
The dramatic irony is, of course, that we know that Icarus flies too close to the sun and falls to his death; the entire song is underpinned by melancholy melodies that remind the listener of the ending, regardless of the confidence of the narrator. Hozier, too, acknowledges this irony with lines like “I do not have wings, love, I never will” and “let me be your Icarian carrion.” Despite the recognition of failure, the narrator still doesn’t think that it will happen.
Though a smaller part, the song also references Atlas being “as heavy as the world that you hold your hands beneath” and the crushing feeling of love. He gets his punishment, while the Icarian narrator veers sharply toward his own.
By pulling apart the pieces of Unreal Unearth, the audience can find more meaning in individual songs and in the album as a whole. “Son of Nyx” could represent the journey through hell or the distortion of memory and dreams, while “I, Carrion (Icarion)” aids in the understanding that Icarus was always meant to fall but was at least happy while he did.
M Alzamora is a writer and museum educator who loves looking at how myths shape society.