Photo by Edward Cooke for Billboard.

Andrew Hozier Byrne’s debut album was wildly successful upon release in 2014 and probably exceeded expectations for any new artist. With that self-titled release, he built on the viral hit of ‘Take Me To Church’ by leaning in to his blues guitar background with uplifting soul, surprisingly dark and assured lyrical content, while writing some seriously big radio-friendly songs.

For his first release since, debut, the Nina Cried Power EP arrives with a lot of expectation and weight and it becomes clear very quickly that the short-form extended play format is a good way to return, as it sidesteps having to make a grand cohesive statement. Echoing his debut EP released on Rubyworks in 2013, Nina Cried Power is a collection of music that leads with a big radio song and concurrently, showcases other shades of the musician. Hozier benefits from the low-stakes return to the EP.

‘Nina Cried Power’ set itself up for the big league. Any song which has a legendary singer like Mavis Staples as a co-vocalist and gives thanks to mostly black protest singers like the titular well-known civil rights activist Nina Simone along Billie Holiday and Curtis Mayfield, along with Joni Mitchell and John Lennon while channelling some serious soul vibes has to attempt to live up to those influences. And the man from Bray holds his own.

“It’s not the wakin’, it’s the risin,” Byrne sings in the first verse to an urgent drum beat before a gospel choir, a big organ (played by Booker T. Jones) and Mavis arrives. In case it needed reiteration, Hozier is woke. He is a socially and politically-conscious singer who is all too keenly aware of his stature as a white Irish dude inspired by the blues, black American music and Mavis Staples appearance is informed by that – a nod and a credit to the past.

As he told Billboard: “There is no blues music without one of the most horrendous atrocities of human trafficking in the last few centuries. It is, of course, a really difficult subject. Everything that’s popular music swings off the work and the achievements and the legacy of black artistry… When writing [the title track], it was important to me to have Mavis involved.”

Hozier says the song’s intention “was to credit the actuality of hope, solidarity and love found in the human spirit at a time when their opposites were being given a mainstream platform 24/7,” and has that gargantuan spirit in its production. It’s uplifting while engaged with relevant world politics.

The other songs here bring some light to the release. ‘NFWMB’ (which stands for “nothing fucks with my baby”) begins as a sprightly-picked dusty acoustic song which embellishes with organ and Hozier’s vocals are suitably light in tone as well, adding some fresh timbre to his discography.

That and ‘Shrike’ the EP’s closing track are reminders of Hozier’s abilities as songwriter. The latter features some choice lines (“I couldn’t whisper when you needed it shouted / Ah, but I’m singing like a bird, ’bout it now,”). It’s superb genuine songwriting.

‘Shrike’ is also a reminder about Hozier’s abilities as a guitar player capable of blues and folk playing. That’s also clear on ‘Moment’s Silence (Common Tongue)’ in terms of B.B. King style blues, but the song overall is less successful. The riffs feel a little predictable while also drawing on the same faraway background chorus tricks as ‘Nina Cried Power’ and previous singles like ‘Take Me To Church’ and ‘Jackie And Wilson’.

On the EP overall, Hozier impresses vocally, lyrically and as a guitarist, on an impeccably-lush release (Markus Dravs is on the boards this time out). It’s a relief that Hozier has stuck to his guns in terms of his core sound while engaging himself with the world at large, while also offering new shades. The real test comes with the second full-length, but for now, Nina Cried Power is a well-timed Delta Bray blues decree.

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