Hozier: love, politics and punishment

August 3, 2023

Photograph by Aiden: Hozier concert at Castlefield Bowl, Manchester July 2023

Aidan Monks explores the Irish singer-songwriter’s career to date

No one could have predicted the success of Hozier’s 2013 single ‘Take Me to Church’, least of all its writer. Up to then Hozier had been a struggling musician and a regular around open mics in Dublin. He worked generally in indie/alternative genres as opposed to pop and rock of which ‘Take Me to Church’ has become a modern landmark.

‘Take Me to Church’ is noted for explicit criticism of far-right religious dogma and intolerance, especially towards the LGBTQIA+ community. Gay oppression is maybe the song’s most essential topic. But it’s important to remember Hozier’s political message confronts every element of Catholic authoritarianism in Irish culture. Why Irish? Simply, he says, because it is the society that raised him.

The song is about the church’s systemic oppression of women, the rape of children, and the philosophies of shame, repression, indoctrination as well as homophobia. The imperative ‘Take Me to Church’ can be read as a demand for a purer form of love and worship without organised religion’s most grotesque corruptions.

Stylistically, it’s Hozierean with fusions of folk, gospel, soul, R&B, and Southern Gothic. Hozier has admitted his debts to Muddy Waters and Nina Simone, producing the single ‘Nina Cried Power’ with Mavis Staples and embracing the politically radical roots of his music.

Songs like ‘Jackie and Wilson’ best illustrate his R&B influence, whereas ‘Take Me to Church’ features the layered vocal harmonies which are a marque déposée of gospel.

As I see it, a close reading of Hozier’s lyrics is enough to understand where he stands politically, whatever colour necktie he wears. In interviews, he is elusive about party affiliation, but his rhetoric is anti-authoritarian, anti-imperial, pro-queer, pro-choice, and ecologically informed.

Writing on the topic of systemic injustice and voicing social outsiders like arsonists, petty criminals, and Irish homosexuals, Hozier’s political progressiveness is unquestionable.

His proud and honest recognition of the black influence on his music makes him as admirable an artist for black communities as he is a patron of individual freedom in matters of sexuality and gender. His music is a synthesis of radical politics, a cosmopolitan union of all humanity in material struggle.

It is not difficult for left-leaning listeners to be grateful for an artist on whom progressive politics is not surface-level but is the canvas of his art.

A more recent track, ‘Swan Upon Leda’, 2022, is a commentary on abortion legislation via a more expansive message about bodily autonomy.
The single came in the wake of Roe v. Wade; the overturning of the 1973 U.S. ruling that protected the right to have an abortion. The cultural friction of power and female liberation is tangible.

Hozier draws on mythology, Leda’s forced impregnation by Zeus in the form of a swan, and imagery of conquest, occupation and colonisation to explore male control of female fertility.

The song is textured with irreconcilable expressions of familial love and violent suppression. Its verse is extraordinary while also being structurally impressive and rhythmic.

Everyone I play this song for, even when unaware of its political emphases, are floored by its first impression. Its meaning is surely inescapable for women of all generations repressed by the West’s right-wing trajectory.

Earlier this month, I attended a Hozier concert at the Castlefield Bowl, in Manchester where the crowd was largely female. Women have an affinity for Hozier’s music; look at his love/break-up songs, his use of the female gaze, adoption of feminine characteristics, gender fluidity, and the celebration of maternity. Hozier associates womanhood with nature and natural law, which adds to the devotion implicit in his love songs.

Although women are often the objects of his songs – like in most pop music – he captures their subjectivity uncommonly. Instead of serving ego satisfaction for a heterosexual male writer, they are painted with nuance. Women might be beautiful, yes, but they are also unpredictable, naïve, wise, depressive, joyous, weak, powerful. They love and are loved to all degrees of intensity and multiplicity.

Hozier’s female fans are inspired and grateful for the interest he shows in the female subject in and of herself, not only how she affects him as a man. A holistic representation of love for a woman is rare in popular music so Hozier’s large proportion of sapphic fans is unsurprising.

His current tour accompanies an EP and an upcoming album, Unreal Unearth coming out August 18th, of which five songs have dropped, including ‘Eat Your Young’. This song will also feature on the album, structured like the circles of Dante’s Inferno, in the circle of gluttony.

Other gems are ‘Francesca’ based on Francesca da Rimini (a medieval noble woman of Ravenna, Italy, who murdered her husband) and ‘Unknown/Nth’ which features one of Hozier’s most impressive vocal performances. ‘Unknown’ has already been subject to copious analysis. The consensus is divided, but it is clear this minimalist break-up song straddles multiple points of view, one being God’s, another Satan’s.

The break-up song format frames the biblical conflict in closer terms, which lays bare the tragedy of Satan who, technically, was destined to betray God and become a prisoner of hell whether he wished to or not. ‘Do you know, I could break beneath the weight / of the goodness, love, I still carry for you…’

The lyrics are sophisticated, comparable with the best songs of Hozier’s early period like Cherry Wine. If these songs were recited music-less at a poetry reading, I would pay entry.

In his upcoming album, Hozier is returning to his lapsed-Catholic roots and deconstructing the work of Dante, among other poets and theologians, establishing himself as a literary subversive.

I think he is one of the most versatile singer-songwriters working in the mainstream, mixing genres and meanings, fearlessly vulnerable, anti-establishment, and enviously original.

In his words, the audience in Manchester was terrific. From start to finish, they were held by his music and the music was ignited by them. It was all good vibes and best intentions – meaning you could rest assured in leaving your purse or drink unattended, which is rare.

Everyone was in safety and solidarity. As with any artist like Hozier, his concert was as political an event as it was musical. Many in the crowd had waited years to experience it; for some it was nostalgic, others prophetic.

Below are a few photos I took at the Hozier gig, Castlefield Bowl, Manchester, Wednesday July 5th 2023.

Aidan currently studies at the University of St Andrews studying English and Philosophy. He is an avid reader, writer, and film-watcher. His favourite film is Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman, best book is Nadja by André Breton, and, as well as anything by Daft Punk, he loves Lou Reed’s album Street Hassle.

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