Prayer and contemplation: Hozier’s “Moment’s Silence (Common Tongue)”

“Moment’s Silence (Common Tongue)” is an unabashedly raunchy song. (Do people still use the word “raunchy”? It’s the word that comes to mind when I think about these lyrics.) In case anyone missed it, Hozier himself has kindly informed us that it is, indeed, a song about oral sex (and you can watch this and treat yourselves to the sight and sound of Hozier saying “oral sex”). It is, specifically, a song sung by a man about receiving oral sex–to put it bluntly, it’s about getting a blowjob. It’s also an elaborately worded, punning plea to consider the possibility of equality in sexual dynamics.

Hozier begins with an oblique evocation of a world in turmoil:

When stunted hand earns place with man by mere monstrosity

Alarms are struck and shore is shook by sheer atrocity

(Is it stretching a point to think that the “stunted hand” refers to a certain American President and the mockery of his small and pudgy hands?) The next two lines detail the singer’s response to a world of monstrosity and atrocity:

A cure I know that soothes the soul, does so impossibly

A moment’s silence when my baby puts the mouth on

Hozier teasingly trails off here, letting his voice slide immediately into the next line, but the meaning is clear enough: When the world is too much with us, oral intimacy is the cure. Note that, yes, “the mouth” is what the official lyrics say (although he has clearly sung it as “their mouth” in concerts), and that the soothing of the soul comes through something that happens *to the body*.

So “my baby puts the mouth” on segues into:

Me and my babe relax and catch the manic rhapsody

All reason flown, as God looks on in abject apathy

“Manic rhapsody” is a delightful phrase just because of the internal rhyme; I am reminded of the line “electing strange perfections in any stranger I choose” from “Someone New” on his debut album. More important, however, is the declaration that “God looks on in abject apathy”. The singer and his baby are having sex, specifically non-reproductive sex, and God simply doesn’t care. In a Catholic culture like Ireland’s, sex that doesn’t lead to babies, even or perhaps especially between a man and a woman, is a definite no. Hozier carefully doesn’t specify his lover’s gender, but either way, they are defying churchly rules and God doesn’t care.

A squall, and all of me is a prayer in perfect piety

A moment’s silence when my baby puts the mouth on me

Hozier follows this utterly blasphemous statement with an unabashed blues wail that, heard live, will make your hair stand on end. (My hair remembers vividly.) His nonverbal outcry in response to receiving oral sex is called “a prayer in perfect piety”, which is also a “moment’s silence”. The silence, one supposes, is mutual: He’s nonverbal with “manic rhapsody”, and his baby can’t talk because their mouth is full. The lyrics hint that, as in his signature tune “Take Me to Church”, it is his lover he worships, no more, no less.

Internal rhymes and end-rhymes both veil the explicitness of these lyrics. The chorus offers us a deadpan pun:

When the meaning is gone

There is clarity

And the reason comes on the common tongue of your loving me

I am entirely certain that “common tongue” is a deliberate pun on “come on tongue”. Hozier did say the song was about oral sex, and I did warn my readers that it is raunchy. But it also evokes the act of oral sex as an act that all gender/sexuality combinations have in common. That brazen pun is coupled with a description of the act as love. Here’s where things begin to get really interesting. In a moment of silence that transcends meaning with clarity–which might be a description of contemplative prayer–the singer understands “the reason” through an act of sex that’s also an act of love. If “Take Me to Church” borrowed the imagery of formal worship for its lovers’ intimacy, “Moment’s Silence” is riffing on the idea of contemplation, of a silent kind of prayer motivated by adoration and love.

The second verse of the song is Hozier’s call out of people with a quite different approach to giving and receiving oral sex:

What yields the need for those who lead us oh so morally

Those that would view the same we do through their deformity

The moral leaders no doubt include politicians and other authority figures as well as authorities within the Church. What is the deformity to which he refers?

Who view the deed as power’s creed, as pure authority

This moment’s silence when my baby puts the mouth on me

Pardon me for being blunt here. Andrew Hozier-Byrne is a 29-year-old man living in the age of free porn on the Internet. It hardly seems possible to me that he has not seen oral sex scenes in porn, that he is not referring here to the kneeling woman servicing with her mouth the man looming over her, often gripping her hair or holding her head between his hands. And it hardly seems possible to conclude that the pleasure of receiving such sexual services is less in the physical sensations than in the emotional charge of using, even forcing another person to provide them, in a humiliating way.

These lyrics seem to me to be looking at that dynamic and rejecting it as a deformity, a distortion of what is a potentially loving and even contemplative act. The remainder of the lyrics reiterate the possibility of sex as an expression of love rather than power, while the music, a simple but powerful blues riff, increases in intensity. Hozier sings four couplets over the frenzied accompaniment:

Since it all begun

To its reckoning

There the reason comes on the common tongue of your loving me

First, he links reason to love: reason meaning the motivation or justification for the act of love.

Be thankful some know it lovingly

There the reason comes in the common tongue of your loving me

Here he insists the most forcefully and unambiguously that for some people, the act of oral sex is not about power but about love.

Like a heathen clung to the homily

Let the reason come on the common tongue of your loving me

At that point he shifts from the indicative “there” to the imperative “let”. In the simplest terms, he’s asking permission to orgasm, but I think there’s also a hint of “reason” as a synonym for “knowledge”. In Biblical Hebrew, “knowledge” is a synonym for sexual experience, and in Catholic theology, the fullness of knowledge can only be experienced through love.

So summon on the pearl rosary

Let the reason come on the common tongue of your loving me

Hozier ends with an image that is at once explicitly religious and explicitly erotic, even pornographic, as the pearls of the rosary are slang for drops of semen splashed on skin.

“Moment’s Silence (Common Tongue)” is a fusion of the erotic, the religious, and the blasphemous even more explicit and potent than “Take Me to Church”, with an irresistible blues melody that can make the tiredest feet get up and dance (if those feet are mine, at any rate). If he keeps writing music like this, I will assuredly keep listening, dancing, singing along when I’m alone, and writing elaborate analyses like this one.

POEM: Beer and Bread

August. The fields outside of town
(where I haven’t driven, for I don’t drive)
are ready for harvest, wheat and corn
(and I eat barley, rice, and oats).
Lugus with his long arm, his clever hand
is ready to sweep the fields,
bring in the harvest. Time
to make beer and bread.

I feel my skin prickle.
I see a red leaf on a green tree,
a brown feather from a sparrow’s wing
on the grey sidewalk. Autumn.
The days are hotter, one by one,
but the sun rises later, lower,
day by day; one by one
the trees slow down, the birds,
the bugs, the flowers, slow down
toward their rest. A stop. I stop.
August. Lughnasad. Autumn.
Across the months, across the equator,
Lugus holds out to Brigantia his hand.
She hands him the knife that she forged
throughout the long summer,
quenched in the sun’s blood.
It’s time to bring it all home.

 

A road muddy and fox-gloved: Hozier’s “As It Was” as faery ballad

The first time I heard “As It Was”, I was struck by the mention of foxgloves. “There is a roadway, muddy and foxgloved”: What is this roadway and why is it bordered with foxgloves in particular? The foxgloved road is the first clue we have to the background of the imagery in this haunting song.

I had read in a number of sources over the years that “foxglove” had nothing to do with foxes, but was rather a corruption of “folks-glove”, the Folks in question being the Fair Folk, the faery beings. I was somewhat disappointed to find in Wikipedia that this etymology has now been thrown out, and an Anglo-Saxon original of “foxes-glofa” has been accepted. Foxes and foxgloves tend to have overlapping territories on hillsides. But the association of the foxglove and the Fair Folk seems sound to me. Foxglove is one of the many plants which are both poisonous and medicinal. Ingested, it can cause death; however, the digitalin group of drugs derives from it, used to treat cardiac conditions since the eighteenth century. A flower which is beautiful, poisonous, and yet healing in strictly regulated doses is a perfect emblem of the Fair Folk as they appear in European tradition.

“There is a roadway / Muddy and foxgloved / Whenever I’d had life enough / My heart is screaming of,” says the singer. There is a road, bordered by toxic flowers, that his heart desires passionately. He continues, “And in a few days / I will be there, love / Whatever here that’s left of me / Is yours just as it was.” The singer is coming back to his beloved on this road, having had “life enough” elsewhere, but whatever is left of him, he assures the beloved, still belongs to them.

To identify the road, where it goes, and where the singer is returning from, I suggest looking at a tradition in English folksong, the faery ballad. The corpus of faery or fairy ballads deals with encounters with the fairies, euphemistically referred to as the Fair Folk or the Gentry (because one does not directly name beings who might be dangerous). My readers are probably thinking now of Tinkerbelle or the fairy godmothers of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, but the fairies of folklore have far more in common with Tolkien’s Elves, and vice versa. They are older than humans, wise, powerful, and not always benevolent towards their younger, mortal siblings; some are merely indifferent, others can be malicious.

The two best known faery ballads, and thus the most important for this analysis, concern Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin. They might be described as the two directions of Hozier’s roadway: Thomas the Rhymer is a poet who goes into the faery realm and comes back safely, whereas Tam Lin is a faery lover brought into the mortal world by his lover Janet. 

Thomas encounters the faery Queen beneath a tree said to belong to the Fair Folk. He becomes her lover and servant and travels with her into the faery realm, taking the third road which goes neither to heaven nor to hell, and crossing rivers of water and blood. When he attempts to pluck an apple from a tree, the Queen forbids him and he obeys; instead, he gives her the apple, which is returned to him as bread and wine, of which he partakes. Because he is faithful and obedient, he is at length allowed to return to the faery world with a gift: the tongue that cannot lie. He becomes a poet and prophet, and books of his prophecies, like Merlin’s or Nostradamus’, are still extant.

Thomas the Rhymer represents what you might call an ideal faery encounter; if one can accept the Fair Folk’s terms and conditions, one may bring great good out of a relationship with them. The tale of Tam Lin recounts a much more dangerous situation. The ballad begins with a warning to young women not to go to or even pass near a place called Carterhaugh, because it belongs to a person named Tam Lin who claims a toll from any visitor, frequently a girl’s “maidenhead”. Janet, the protagonist of the ballad, does not heed this warning, for she deliberately goes to the forbidden well in search of the mysterious Tam Lin and picks his roses (obvious metaphor) until she gets his attention. Tam Lin warns her away, but Janet declares that Carterhaugh is on her land, so she will come and go as she likes.

Janet then returns home, and her people chastise her for dealing with Tam Lin. Her father declares that she is pregnant, and she denies that the father is any knight in his hall, but the “elfin grey” Tam Lin. She returns to Carterhaugh and once again summons Tam Lin, who accuses her of trying to abort their child. She asks him if he was ever a mortal; he tells her that he was, that he was captured by the faery Queen near seven years ago, and that he fears he will be turned over by the Queen as a “teind to hell”, a tithe or sacrifice. However, it is nearly Halloween, that is, the eve of All Saints, which is also Samhain, and there is a chance that she may win him away from his faery lover. He gives her careful instructions on how to do so, which involves considerable risk. 

Is the singer of “As It Was”, whose heart is “screaming of” the mysterious roadway, desirous of returning from the faery realm to his mortal lover? Or is he longing to escape mortality and go after a faery lover? I suggest that the song can be read both ways. 

The singer promises he will return to his love with “whatever here is left of me”. That suggests to me that he has been in the faery realm and is at last able to return to the mortal world. He offers himself, however diminished, just as he was

Before the otherness came

And I knew its name

The drug, the dark,

The light, the flame

These lines in the refrain suggest experiences other than faery abduction: drug addiction, perhaps the stress of performing on tour, even alien abduction (and I would not be the first to observe that faery abductions and alien abductions are curiously similar). This does not, however, negate the resemblance to the faery ballad, which is essentially a record of an encounter with “the otherness”.

He continues, 

The highs hit the heights of my baby

And its hold had the fight of my baby

And the lights were as bright as my baby

But your love was unmoved

Again, “the highs” and “its hold” suggest drug addiction, “the lights” could refer to the lights of a concert or the mysterious lights of a UFO. “But your love was unmoved” points back to the ballad of Tam Lin and his instructions to Janet for getting him away from the faery host. She must correctly identify him among the riders in the faery troop, pull him from his horse, throw her cloak around him, and hold on no matter what, as he is transformed into various frightening shapes. We will come back to this connection at the end of the song.

The singer now pleads with his beloved for some reassurance that he is still wanted, still loved: “How long you would wait for me / How long I’ve been away”. Has it been the seven years mentioned so often in the ballads? In a heartbreaking juxtaposition of courtly, formal language with 21st-century domesticity, he sings, “Make your good love known to me / Just tell me about your day”, and launches again into the refrain, “Just as it was….”

“The otherness came” and brought with it an intensity of experience accompanied, in this iteration, by shame. He juxtaposes again the allure of the otherness experience with the allure of his baby, whose love was “unmoved”. Unmoved by his absence, perhaps; unmoved by the trials of dealing with an addict in the throes of withdrawal; unmoved by the needs of an exhausted performer coming off a tour. “Unmoved”, to me, suggests steadfast, reliable, undeterred, but it can equally be read as emotionally cold or unavailable. 

The song concludes with a new variation on the refrain:

And the sights were as stark as my baby

And the cold cut as sharp as my baby

And the nights were as dark as my baby

Half as beautiful too

In order to win back her lover Tam Lin and have a father for her child, Janet of Carterhaugh must endure his being changed into a lizard, an adder, a bear, a red-hot bar of iron, and a burning coal, at which point she must throw him into the nearby well. He will then turn into a naked man and she must cover him with her cloak. She must remain unmoved despite the terrifying changes; “Hold me fast, and fear me not,” Tam Lin tells her. 

So the singer’s lover might withstand the drug, the dark, the light, the flame, the stark sights, the sharp cold, for the dark night is as dark as his baby, but only half as beautiful. There is a reluctant longing in this song for “the otherness”, for its terrible intensity, yet the singer’s lover turns out to be more powerful, more intense, than the otherness, perhaps terrifying in themselves. 

Hozier’s fans often resort to metaphors out of myth and legend to describe him: He is our forest god, faery prince, bog man, Orpheus. Especially in performance, he has a numinous, otherworldly quality, a more than human charisma. On stage, he is Thomas the Rhymer, the poet who has been to the otherworld and now must tell the truth, as the price or the reward of his dealings with “the otherness”. Or he is Tam Lin, won back from the faery Queen by a determined, persistent lover who can outwait the Fair Folk and hang on in the worst of times. The tune shifts between a light folk-influenced melody on the verses and a rock beat in the refrain, just as the action shifts between the otherworld and this world, the world of “Make your good love known to me” and the world of “Just tell me about your day”. The fairy tales and the faery ballads all tell us that the most important thing about the faery realm is being able to come back from it. Hozier seems to be doing just fine.