I can tell you exactly what and when and how I first heard the music of Andrew Hozier-Byrne. The date was May 16, 2014, and he performed a Live Lunch concert on air at a local college radio station. I was tuned in to listen because a friend of mine who worked at the station pinged me on chat to tell me about the concert and said she thought I would like him.
My friend’s intuition was 100% correct. Listening to the three or four songs he performed that day kindled a flame of interest in me that has grown slowly into a raging bonfire, culminating in the experience of seeing him perform live in March of this year (thanks to the same friend, who was able to score free tickets for me from the station). I’ve followed him on YouTube, and then Instagram and Twitter, bought his EPs and his self-titled debut album, listened to that music while he toured for two years and then went home to his cottage in Ireland for another two years to create a second album, and been blown away by that new album, Wasteland, Baby! and his live performance of old and new music with a fantastic band. I cannot praise Hozier enough for his combination of magnificent voice, complex and intelligent songwriting, charismatic performance, and sheer physical beauty.
But rather than talk about his gorgeous hair, I’ve been wanting for a while to talk about his songs, particularly his lyrics. Hozier has always been forthcoming about his influences, musical and otherwise, and alongside black musicians like Nina Simone and Otis Redding, he mentions poets W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney. I’m pretty sure he would dismiss the idea that his lyrics can stand alone as poetry, but I think I must beg to differ.
At the age of 24, an Irish lad nobody outside his hometown and environs had heard of had a tremendously successful hit song, a powerful gospel anthem called “Take Me to Church”. You might reasonably wonder why, especially if you’ve never heard the song with its powerful baritone vocals. I’d like to do a close reading of the lyrics and tell you what I think.
The song starts out fairly conventionally with a description of the singer’s beloved: “My lover’s got humour/ She’s the giggle at a funeral.” This note of irreverence is followed by a sudden turn to religious language: “Knows everybody’s disapproval/ I should’ve worshipped her sooner. / If the heavens ever did speak,/ She’s the last true mouthpiece.” The singer has gone from describing his lover as someone with a sense of humor to identifying her as something to be worshipped, a trustworthy oracle of “the heavens”.
He then turns, in the same verse, to conventional religion: “Every Sunday’s getting more bleak/ A fresh poison each week/ ‘We were born sick,’ you heard them say it”. To say that “we were born sick” is a reference to the Christian doctrine of original sin, which teaches that every human being has inherited what you might call a tendency from the first man, Adam, that separates us from God and makes us incapable of doing anything that isn’t sin.
The next verse offers a bold contrast: “My church offers no absolutes/ She tells me, “Worship in the bedroom”/ The only heaven I’ll be sent to/ Is when I’m alone with you”. “My church” is the singer’s relationship with his lover, and she is his deity, who tells him to worship “in the bedroom”, that is, through sex. Original sin has often been equated with sexuality and vice versa; some Christian theologians proposed that Adam and Eve did not have sex until they had eaten the forbidden fruit and were banished from Eden. “Forbidden fruit” is often, though not exclusively, a metaphor for sexual acts.
The singer’s religion is his love, his deity is his beloved, his worship of her is sex, and heaven is the intimacy of being alone with her. Hozier is far from the first poet to use religious metaphors for erotic/romantic relationships, just as mystics have for centuries used erotic metaphors for their spiritual intimacy with their god. But this theme is not something we have seen in popular music for a while. Instead of degrading his lover, Hozier exalts her.
Then, he takes the Church’s depressing doctrine and turns it on its head: “I was born sick/ But I love it/ Command me to be well.” And Hozier opens up and delivers a powerful threefold “Amen” before launching, at last, into the first chorus:
Take me to church
I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife
Offer me that deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life.
This is, straightforwardly, a plea to a woman to have sex with the singer, couched in religious metaphor. But it’s not just a metaphor; it claims love and sex as religious experiences in themselves. Sex is as powerful to the singer as worship, sacrifice, and confession; it provides the “deathless death”, a reference to the “little death” of orgasm but perhaps also to the ritually enacted death and rebirth of the mystery cults which allowed the initiates a happy afterlife. The singer doesn’t just want to have sex, get laid, and go away; he pleads to be allowed to give his whole life to the object of his worship.
After this first chorus, the song turns openly critical of the Church once again. “If I’m a pagan of the good times,/ My lover’s the sunlight./ To keep the goddess on my side/ She demands a sacrifice.” I’m struck by the fact that Hozier identifies his personal goddess not with the moon or other conventionally feminine symbols like the ocean, but with the sun. This is the first time he does so, but it won’t be the last time in his discography.
Now he rips into the Church for not satisfying its faithful: “Drain the whole sea/ Get something shiny/ Something meaty for the main course/ That’s a fine-looking high horse/ What you got in the stable?/ We’ve a lot of starving faithful”. I can’t help but read this as a criticism of the Church for not satisfying people spiritually while at the same time profiting from them materially. As an Irishman, Hozier grew up with the Roman Catholic Church as a pervasive influence (though he himself was raised as a Quaker), but there are plenty of American megachurches that are guilty of the same charges. Rich clerics collecting wealth from poor congregants can be found in every form of Christianity and in other religions as well.
Hozier calls on those who are sitting on their high horse judging others to be mindful of those who are starving and make a sacrifice, give something up, for their benefit. He goes on, “That looks tasty/ That looks plenty/ This is hungry work”. The “hungry work”, I would suggest, is the work of dismantling religious institutions that exploit their laity, of dismantling the religious viewpoints that demonize erotic love and, dare I say, demonize women as objects of love and devotion in particular.
He then repeats the chorus, singing even more passionately than before (and this is very noticeable in live performance), and sings it a second time before going into the bridge of the song: “No masters or kings/ When the ritual begins/ There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin.” The ritual here is sex with its lover, and in their lovemaking there are no “masters or kings”, perhaps no top or bottom, no dominant or submissive; there is no hierarchy in the sexual sacrament, the two lovers are equals. The Church may call it sin, but Hozier affirms, “In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene/ Only then I am human/ Only then I am clean,” following these lines with another powerful triple “Amen” before singing the final chorus. Hozier insists that his experience of sex contradicts the Church’s description of it; while it may be “earthly”, it is an experience which makes him “human” and “clean”.
Hozier arrived on the music scene with this song pretty much out of nowhere, unknown outside of Ireland, perhaps unknown outside the Dublin area, and was triumphantly successful. The song was hugely popular, and many interviewers asked him what it was about, what it meant. He repeatedly delivered a short version of my exegesis–the goodness and humanness of sex vs. the Church’s demonization and repression of it, especially in Roman Catholic Ireland–and authorized a music video that featured images of gay men being attacked and arrested in the Ukraine, broadening his words beyond any implied heterosexuality. He also affirmed same-sex relationships in his interviews, while dodging the question of whether he himself is gay. (He has consistently been private about his romantic/sexual relationships while being sex-positive, so I’m not going to inquire further.)
What no one seems to have asked is why this song by a virtual unknown was so popular. The immediate, obvious answer is that it’s a damned good song: rich lyrics and a powerful melody delivered by an accomplished singer with passion and commitment. Hozier’s rich baritone pouring from the speakers can grab the listener by the chest, making your breastbone vibrate in sympathy and your heart throb to his rhythm.
The deeper answer, I think, is that the song carries a message people are desperate to hear. In the gospel harmonies of American religious tradition, Hozier proclaims that whatever their church has told them, his listeners are not sinful or dirty for wanting, needing, and liking sex. Sex itself can be sacred, spiritual, holy, far more so than the Church’s greed for wealth and lust for control. Sexual love is love, in all its madness and messiness; sex is an act of worship, not of violence or corruption.
Hozier will return to these themes and work variations on them in other songs, with extensive borrowings from European myth and poetry. I’ll be revisiting his discography to discuss more of his songs in future, and I hope you’ll read along.