Hozier's Heresies

[CN: mention of domestic violence, apocalyptic themes]


Artwork by Flo Brockman

The music of the Irish singer-songwriter Andrew Hozier Byrne defies genre, interlacing folk, soul, gospel, R&B and rock. While his lyrics are poetic, even literary, he evades the label. Instead, the medium of live musical performance destabilises his words from their fixed written form. Even in their content and register, Hozier’s lyrics - almost humbly - upend the authority of language, translating old orthodoxies into subversive new languages. Critical of the ‘infallibility’[1] projected by institutional religion, he parses the Word through a different ‘mouthpiece’[2] - his lover, in his best-known single, released in 2013 ‘Take Me To Church’. Beyond latent dissent or polemical diatribe, however, Hozier’s work formulates alternatives in ambivalent, self-unseating parallel. Following Joyce in rich Catholic metaphors, he adopts a similar position of ‘misbelief.’[3] He disobeys and disrupts orthodoxy through its own language, which is mustered into new myths, commitments, sacrifices and authorities that subtly but surely assert choice - hairesis - and identity.


I treat lyrics from Hozier’s different songs as part of an interrelated ‘work-as-cosmos,’[4] as the medievalist critic Umberto Eco wrote of Joyce, within which the ‘I’ functions as a recognisably recurring male protagonist, often with a (female) lover. As Hozier’s listeners, we follow his alter-ego into an aesthetically Christian system of overarching, integrated myths, that are soon rewritten. Almost conspiratorially, the singer tells us he and his lover are ‘from Eden.’ We know this one. The story is irrevocably ‘familiar, like my mirror years ago,’ but its inversions and irony wreak havoc with Catholic tropes of delayed gratification. ‘Innocence,’ left unrewarded, ‘died screaming,’ as if at the stake after a medieval heresy trial gone wrong. It is the satanic serpent that survives instead, vindicated by history, and given new voice - ‘I slithered here from Eden / just to sit outside your door.’ Hozier’s ‘cosmos,’ inverting and defamiliarising Biblical worldviews, also resembles a ‘chaosmos,’ the dark underbelly of Eco’s paradigm. In this soundscape, where ‘all things come from nothing,’ there’s also ‘No Plan’, and ‘no kingdom to come.’


Within Hozier’s alternate foundation myth, the seeds of Genesis are capitulated and consummated apocalyptically, smacking of John’s Revelation. Parallel visions appear to coexist interchangeably, evoking scriptural exegesis while disrupting the idea of a single meta-narrative that orthodoxy seems to offer. Several songs prophesy different possible endings, each by way of different cosmological elements. Fire, for starters, is political and iconoclastic - ‘fuel the pyre of your enemies’ - but also purgatorial: ‘ain’t it warming you, the world going up in flames?’ This perverse pleasure in death is brought home to earth, too, as the singer asks his lover to ‘hire a gardener for my grave.’ Death restores the body to its origins, providing care, but Hozier proposes comfort in violent, unceremonious fates. ‘Be’ anticipates a Second Coming, ‘when St Peter loses cool and bars the Gates,’ but ‘when the gyre widens on and when the wave breaks,’ only love matters. In this sense, Hozier re-imagines Christian history, envisioning a ‘new beginning’ in this world razed to the ground, rather than anything the next could promise. In this ‘reckoning,’ Adam and Eve reunite, relishing their sin, but almost free of it too. Elsewhere, in ‘Talk,’ we catch ‘the last witness before the wave hits’ just as he dares to think that things could have been otherwise. With all other things equal in a disaster-ravaged ‘wasteland,’ to ‘imagine being loved by me’ is to conceive an alternate eschatology. Hozier’s protagonist refashions fate, proving his freedom.


It is this choice that Hozier affirms heretically, constantly testing its meaning. Displaced from lofty Christian pantheons, Hozier’s ‘angel’ instead heralds personal, bodily, potent ‘small death.’ There is righteous anger here, ‘freshly disowned’ by authority and marshalled into protest, following the non serviam of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus in ‘shaking the wings of their terrible youths.’ But subversion also manifests in paradoxically playful, and violent ambiguity, left ‘toying somewhere between love and abuse.’ This unease and self-interrogation resists the easy path of direct dissent, instead, carefully treading the harmony between ‘reasons wretched and divine.’ At times, the subject reinstates the original domestic Freudian conflict against a punitive Old Testament Father, ‘always a well-dressed fraud / who wouldn’t spare the rod.’ Long-latent resistance seems to have worn the subject down, ‘laughing away through my feeble disguise,’ almost cleaving his identity in two. With a divided self, ambivalence and internal compulsion complicate free choice. Words are inadequate for the singer to articulate his internal turmoil, as ‘I’ve no language left to say it.’ Instead, ‘every word I’ve got is foreign to me’ - familiar forms of communication are rendered strange, as snatched ‘little words’ provide only fragmentary, ‘thin’ glimpses at meaning. The subject is disconnected from orthodoxy, left ‘screaming the name of a foreigner’s God.’ As he confronts the limitations of the language of authority, he exposes his own fallibility too, ‘scratching’ almost bestially, without ‘get[ting] in.’ Beyond the contents of belief itself, Hozier rejects monopoly on it: nothing is certain. The singer, desperate as ‘a heathen clung to the homily,’ seeks a language to communicate and to know for sure, but most radically acknowledges his own vulnerability. He sustains deviance by self-questioning, subjecting himself to prevent others doing so; ‘don’t you ever tame your demons / Always keep em on a leash.’


Suspended in existential ‘mid-youth crisis,’ Hozier’s protagonist seeks to re-define his identity by making commitments, ironically returning to Christian themes of conversion, quasi-religious sacrifice, self-renunciation and violence. Choice is always complicated, often intertwined with inarticulable compulsion, like ‘the dreadful need in the devotee that made him turn around.’ As if to be sure of his freedom, the protagonist painfully raises the stakes: in the song ‘Cherry Wine,’ Hozier implies that in the eyes of the devoted lover, even abuse could, painfully, seem ‘worth it, it’s divine.’ Drawing ‘rare and sweet’ blood from the subject’s body becomes an ascetic practice, imitating Christ as metaphor transubstantiates the blood into ‘cherry wine.’ Love, like pain, grants redemption, leaving him ‘all but washed in the tide of her breathin’.’ But as these sacrificial ‘rites of movement’ seem to violently render the subject in two, they also more literally render the individual - articulating and defining identity. Apocalyptic turmoil allows for shedding old identities like snakeskins, with ‘every version of me dead and buried in the yard outside.’ The dissident subject is excruciatingly but refreshingly ‘reborn / as the shrike to your sharp and glorious thorn.’


Yet these regenerated, experimental identities still rest in tragic irony, inversions and marginality - a sense that ‘the world, good God, it wasn’t for us.’ Even while railing against the concept of sin, Hozier still mourns fallenness, which he finds writ large in the cataclysmic world that fails to recognise ‘a perfect creature’ moving with ‘shameless wonder,’ and writ small in ‘the wrong I did.’ Impotently, he laments, ‘chivalry fell on its sword.’ The subject-as-knight looks up to divine patriarchal approbation, but traditional masculinity falters and phallic authority collapses in on itself. However, this more vulnerable, suffering mode provides comfort and tenderness. ‘I’ll crawl home to her,’ he promises penitently, debasing his own body to a mere creature in the divine order, or a limp ‘corpse.’ Love softens the blow of death, blurring distinctions of time, with the couple’s bodies rotting ‘for years or for hours,’ rather than Christian resurrection. This version of escaping bodily matter is still reassuring, though, as the singer suggests to his lover that ‘we’d feed well the land.’ Even in death, he sides with the oppressed, literally nourishing a return to an Eden ruined not by human sexuality, but ecological violence. Hozier represents decay itself as healing, iconoclastically unmasking empty claims to universal and permanent authority.


Love energises our protagonist in more vocal resistance, too. In the context of free commitment, Hozier suggests that even heterosexual relationships - seeming to uphold ‘power’s creed’ and ‘pure authority’ - can subvert it. Eroticism acquires a kind of ‘ethical seriousness,’[5] as Simon Gaunt has theorised on chivalric devotion, but here, it is with ‘all reason flown.’ Even as a man receiving oral sex from a woman might suggest patriarchal dominance, the male singer finds healing vulnerability through it - ‘all of me is a prayer in perfect piety.’ Absolutes of authority and invincible masculinity fall away. Erotic choices matter because they pay no attention to ‘reason’ imposed by authority - truer independence than automatically defying it, and so being defined by it. As ‘God looks on in abject apathy,’ free love offers more fluid power dynamics. With only love to lose, the singer becomes fearless - ‘I’d suffer hell’ - even railing against theological ‘diatribes.’‘Heaven and hell were words to me,’ and as we (like Hozier) well know, words are malleable.


Through music, Hozier opens up orthodoxy to freedom and ambiguity: ‘you don’t have to sing it right, but who could call you wrong?’ But he pushes further still, urging us to translate this questioning into more direct resistance against the Orwellian ‘jackboot,’ singing, ‘it’s not the waking, it’s the rising.’ Instead of Old Testament genealogies, ‘Nina Cried Power’ traces a musical lineage through Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Mavis Staples and others who sang political messages, especially celebrating and crediting the influence of Black activists. Past inflections, preserved elsewhere in the folk tones of Would That I, are formulated to address urgent present concerns, a cosmological weight that peaks in Be. Political unravelling in the second verse elaborates on the theological apocalypse we saw in the first. The singer anticipates a final overhaul, ‘when the bodies starving at the border / are on TV giving people the sack.’ The ‘sea ris[ing] to meet us’ becomes at once Biblical flood, climate catastrophe and an existential threat to migrants. With ‘nobody upstairs to receive us,’ Hozier instead proposes a radically loving ideal, which bears fruit in a nuclear family, but with conservative values replaced. Instead, ‘we’ll name our children Jackie and Wilson / raise ‘em on rhythm and blues’ - future generations are nurtured by music-making that unashamedly channels a political and emotional current.


Hozier’s lyrics negotiate the possibility of freeing choice from authority. His subversive address unsettles age-old cosmological narratives from within and disputes the idea of a single monopoly on truth, an openness that is only enhanced in live performance. His subject even turns questioning in on himself, committing to doubt rather than outright disbelief. Singing ‘I wouldn’t fall for someone I thought couldn’t misbehave,’ Hozier ironically defers - ‘falls’ - to disobedience.


Listen to The Cambridge Review of Books' Hozier playlist.

[1] Interview with Andrew Hozier Byrne, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtn-gAQX2z4 [2] All quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from Hozier’s song lyrics and titles. [3] The literary critic Roy Gottfried proposed this model for Joyce’s work, especially the figure of Stephen Dedalus. [4] Umberto Eco, The Open Work [5] Simon Gaunt, writing on Love and Death in medieval chivalric literature