Before the First Light, or why playlists matter

My friend picked out ten Hozier songs and threw me into a whole new world

Alexandre Aimbiré
7 min readOct 13, 2023
Photo by Annie Williams on Unsplash

It's a sunny Saturday afternoon and after grabbing a cup of the best coffee on this side of the Atlantic, my friend Mish and I decided to go flaneuring around Nijmegen. Among the many shops we visited was a record store on the Lange Hezelstraat. We spent a long time browsing, looking at records and showing them to each other, sharing musical memories and exchanging musical recommendations. We discussed what were our favorite Led Zeppelin songs (this I'll leave for another text), what our parents like to listen, why I like the Black Crowes so much, which were our favorite movie soundtracks and so many other subjects that only a record store can provide. Surprisingly, my wallet survived this ordeal unscathed.

Mish's did not.

I did not buy any new records during this visit. I had already spent my monthly quota on a copy of Radiohead’s OK Computer purchased at the same store earlier that same month. Mish left the store with a brand new copy of Hozier’s Unreal Unearth. After some debating whether to buy this one, a special edition, or a copy of Wasteland, Baby!, the newest addition to the Irishman’s discography ended up finding it’s forever home. I had a very small knowledge of Hozier other than "Take Me to Church" – which is a banger – but never had much curiosity in exploring the rest of his output. Mish, on the other hand, considers Hozier their favorite artist and even has a tattoo honoring him. As a music lover and also as a person who has two musical themed tattoos, I was curious in what made this particular artist so important to my friend and after a short banter about it, I was promised a playlist.

Playlists are the modern equivalent to a mixtape. However, most people don't truly appreciate what it means to select songs in a certain order with a certain theme. While people such as myself, members of older generations stuck with tapes and CDs with limited time, tend to select and arrange carefully each track, younger people usually just randomly add songs on a Spotify playlist with little regard for any cohesion and, as there are no time constraints, the number of songs grows to infinity. Mish is a little older than about half my age, but understood the assignment.

The next day I had a list of ten songs that included some deep cuts, a couple of hits and it was, ultimately, a list of favorites. The fact that these are only ten songs matter. Out of three full albums and several EPs, I had only ten songs to understand who was this artist and why he mattered so much to my friend.

I have to confess that I cheated. Before going into the playlist, I listened to "Take Me to Church". This was my first contact with the singer-songwriter and I decided that revisiting it was a good place to start. I always found it funny that this was a song liked by American Christians and played frequently at weddings in Brazil. People should really start paying attention to the lyrics of the songs they listen to, but that’s another matter. Regardless, "Take Me to Church" is a powerful song. A great vocal performance with an emotional delivery and very powerful lyrics. I’ll always remember when one of my singing teacher’s students performed it at a recital. An awesome performance filled with the passion that the song requires.

Having reacquainted myself with Hozier, I finally stepped into the list. It started with the two parts of "De Selby". The first part is sung in Irish and is slow and beautiful, but quickly transitions into a funky and dancy part two. It's a song I'd love to play when I used to DJ at small clubs in my hometown. And then it ends, out of nowhere, like a Strokes song. The list continued with the slightly overdriven guitar of "Unknown/Nth". A beautiful song, with few elements other that an electric guitar plugged into a tube amp and Hozier's own voice. It's a beautiful and intimate performance, that is, until the final chorus comes in and the song explodes into a cathartic cry that fills the room with his voice and and angelical choir, carried by heavy guitar strumming.

As the song gently fades, so did this small section of songs from his last album, Unreal Unearth. I was carried back to his first self-titled album with "Angel of Small Death and Codeine Scene", a simple but effective bluesy jam. A soft distortion and and the drums that pop in and out made me feel as if I was watching a show at a dive bar with a band hidden in the back. The next track, "Moment's Silence (Common Tongue)" is another bluesy track with a classic lick that kept me in the same dive bar setting.

And them came "First Light".

The last track of Unreal Unearth finally convinced me of how good Hozier is as an artist. Up until this point I was simply passing casually as I do with most artists. I knew it was good, but nothing I heard so far, to me, was superior to the emotional impact of "Take Me to Church". I was wrong and, boy, how wrong was I. "First Light" starts quietly, but also anxious and restless. The acoustic guitar arpeggio begins with distant choir voices and suddenly Hozier's voice appears together with the bass guitar. And then, suddenly, there's a drop and a short silence. It doesn't even last for a full second before the drums kick in with the bridge and Hozier starts belting to the heavens. The arpeggio slows down and becomes a little more crystalline before the actual chorus is driven by the snare drum and an angelical choir and a string section as smooth as silk.

There are few songs that gave me chills when I first heard them, and I can remember each and every one of them and where I was at that moment. The room I shared with my brother on a sunny afternoon in 1996 when I first heard "When the Levee Breaks", or the seemingly common weekday at the office in 2013 when "To Here Knows When" started blasting in my headphones. "First Light" did exactly that. I immediately grabbed my phone and texted Mish in all caps. Chills, actual chills. I can remember I even muttered a "fuck me" without even realizing it, completely mesmerized by the song.

From this moment on, every time I listen to "First Light", I'll be transported to the silence of my nights at my dorm room in Nijmegen during the Fall of 2023. This song became the unofficial anthem of my exchange here in the Netherlands. Eyes open, the beginning of a new phase in my life.

Nijmegen Grote Markt by night (Yup, this is my own photo).

The song ends with the strumming of an acoustic guitar and wraps what is the perfect ending to a great album. However, on this playlist, it felt like a track seven, that little gem that is usually the best song of a record but never became a single and is only known by the most valorous fans. It felt special, like it was my own song, even if it has over six million plays on Spotify (and counting).

The playlist continued with the somber "Talk". Fingers snapping instead of a snare drum and an ominous bass playing in the back show the Irishman's truest bluesy colors. No inflammatory vocals this time, just a very down to earth performance. The following tracks were the single "Eat Your Young" and it's B-Side, "Through Me (The Flood)". Two very distinct tracks side by side. The first is a catchy danceable song with falsettos and a fuller drum track than most of his songs. One uniting theme so far in all of the songs was the minimalist approach to drums and percussion in general. The following song started with more resemblance to most of Hozier's discography, but that quickly changed into a high tempo funky dancefloor heavy track. A fuzzy guitar in the background accompanied by the chanting of a gospel-like choir and a creamy bass turned the ending of the playlist into a feast for my ears.

The tenth and last track almost fell forgotten, literally. Mish messaged me a couple of hours after sending me the original nine songs and addedthe slow and intimistic "Like Real People Do". This song falls into the indie-folk that most people tend to lump Hozier into. Not that it's a bad label, it's just insufficient, like most labels are. I don't think I would classify an artist such as Hozier with the limp and bland Fleet Foxes, but critics love their labels. I was paced down and could rest now after so many different feelings and and could rest in Hozier's velvety voice as the final chord jarred into the night. I breathed in and went back to the beginning. I listened again to each track and then turned to each album.

I had found a new musical obsession.

Playlists matter. They may not be as elegant and fashionable as a mixtape, but it's an art form just the same. As High Fidelity's Rob Gordon said, it's "a very subtle art". Every song chosen, the order, the significance of each one. We have personal relationships with the songs and artists we chose to be ours and when we decide to share our own feeling through someone else's music and lyrics, we are opening a little bit of ourselves to another person. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, my friend decided to share their favorite artist with me and he became one of mine as well. I'll be forever grateful for that.

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Alexandre Aimbiré

Sociólogo de boteco, estudante de Letras, guitarrista ocasional, pai, marido e leitor ávido de caixas de sucrilhos. Leio e escrevo sobre o que me dá na telha.