|Andrew ‘Hozier’ Byrne @ Eurosonic 2014. Photo via Flickr/enola.be|
I smiled, wondering what the company would think if they tracked my bizarre search history. Irish musician Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” played on the radio as I drove to work one morning, and I spent the first two hours at my office internship googling combinations of the words I could remember from it: “take me to church,” “sharpen your knife.”
The song starts out with a vocal track and piano. His deep voice, thick with reverb, together with the few minor chords—nothing fancy, just chords—call to mind a vast, empty cathedral echoing with solemn sounds. To reinforce this initial tone, we’re hit with lines packed with religious and deathly imagery in the first verse:
My lover’s got humor. She’s the giggle at a funeral.
Was everybody’s disapproval. I should’ve worshipped her sooner.
If the heavens ever did speak, she’s the last true mouthpiece.
Every Sunday’s getting more bleak. A fresh poison each week.
We were born sick, you heard them say it.
During this first time listening to “Take Me To Church,” my brain tried to make sense of the lyrics’ message as my memory grasped at bits and pieces, trying to store as much as possible. But I didn’t have enough time to sift through it all, as I was hit with the next verse: “My church offers no absolutes (or ‘absolution’?). She tells me, ‘Worship in the bedroom.’” A subtle electric guitar with grungy distortion creeps in, accompanied by some faint vocal drones, sort of choral or chant-like, and the occasional rim shot for percussion. By this point, I was being carried by the eerie groove but not totally committed to it. Like accepting an invitation from a stranger, I couldn’t tell where it was taking me and wasn’t totally sure I wanted to find out.
Maybe because I grew up in a Christian home and musical family, the song’s worship theme engaged me. I sought to categorize this new song by its words, hoping to judge its clique instead of judging the song for itself. If the lyrics turned out to be overtly Christian, I’d probably fault new artist Hozier for using Christianity as a ploy to gain street credit in the folksy, bluesy rock genre (something you often hear in bluegrass). On the other hand, if the lyrics were making fun of worship and religion, I was prepared for an argument against his song. Was he picking a battle against organized religion, Christianity in general, Catholicism, the Church? Depending on his target, I’d listen for holes and misconceptions in an attempt to disarm the song’s anti-Christian messages, and I would ultimately toss it out as music that functions by shock factor (think, Katy Perry’s first hit or anything by Tyler, the Creator).
Still listening, I was approaching the parking lot of my office building when the amens started: forceful, soulful, and scalar, they struck me as totally out of character with what I had heard so far. I wondered whether Hozier was the vocalist featured on Avicii’s “Wake Me Up,” a song that, to me, represents EDM’s butchery of other pop music so that molly-popping festival goers have something more fun to dance to—in the case of “Wake Me Up,” Avicii exploits a soul-meets-country style. Hozier’s three consecutive, overly stylized amens reminded me so much of the repeated “I didn’t know I was lost” towards the end of Avicii’s hit that I was relieved to be parking, knowing I’d get to kill the song in a second.
But Hozier got me again before I could turn the car off. After the amens and a short pause that reflects the finalizing silence of a prayer’s closure, the chorus rebels against all of that reverence:
Take me to church! I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies.
I’ll tell you my sins, so you can sharpen your knife.
Offer me that deathless death. Good God, let me give you my life!
The three lines build suspense and power. Starting in a minor chord, then moving up a whole step, and resolving itself at the third and final line, the melody climactically supports the irreverent play on religious phrasing. The speaker humbles himself, throwing himself before a shrine, worshipping like a dog, confessing his sins, and begging for a deathless death. These are all images of devout Christian worship, but he’s twisting them into a strange and sexual story. “Deathless death” could refer to the eternal life that the Christians in my family expect when they die to this world, but the phrase is also reminiscent of “La petite mort,” the French euphemism for orgasm meaning “the little death.” The speaker seems to beg his contemptuous lover, one who “giggle[s] at a funeral,” to consummate a sexual relationship with him. The lyrics’ playful spin is both clever and attractive. “Good God” flips in meaning from a pious religious address to an exasperated expression of complicated feelings in sex and love. The blatant use of this religious jargon to express a love story was so delightfully unexpected and badass that I listened to the entire song before taking the keys and starting my day.
The music is good from start to finish. Hozier has excellent control of his voice, with its rich timbre and chilling dynamics. The rhythm changes at the chorus to interrupt and lift the song from ever seeming repetitive. I even ended up loving the amens. But the music’s quality alone probably wouldn’t compel me to share it with other people. The fact that it’s so peculiar is what’s getting me to play it. I think about “Take Me To Church,” can’t remember why I thought it was so unusual, and then I put the song on to remind myself. I keep listening because the song’s loaded and, like a great poem, it can’t be understood upon first listen. From its melody to its rhythm, from its Christian diction to its death references, “Take Me To Church” is operating on so many levels to convey a sense of falling in love with someone: it’s mysterious, it’s dangerous, it’s not clear whether the experience will end up happy or sad. A love song shouldn’t always be so straightforward as “Crazy in Love” or “Tainted Love.” Hozier immediately evoked my family background and religious upbringing and then drew me in with romance and death, achieving in me a mixed sensation of defense and intrigue, of excitement and fear.
On the way up to Boston from New Jersey at the end of my winter break, my brother and I listened to “Take Me To Church.” The two of us had a five-hour drive and not too many stories to share, so we exchanged music instead. “You have to hear this weird song,” I said as I put it on.
I watched him listen. He said, “This is weird,” when the amens came. I signaled to be quiet and keep listening, doing a sort of air-drumroll when the chorus came in.We got into the groove of it after the first chorus, but something about its later verses struck him even harder with confusion than the beginning. My brother said, “It sounds like he has no idea what he’s singing about—what the words mean.” We both laughed as we listened from this new perspective, imagining all of it to be senseless, crazy words sung by someone who doesn’t know the language. Of course, as a lyrically driven song by an Irish musician, this isn’t the case, but lines like “That’s a fine lookin’ high horse. What you got in the stable?” really do sound ludicrous.
I’m not the first person to storm the Internet because of “Take Me To Church.” Apparently, Hozier’s powerful sound, sacrilegious lyrics, and controversial music video had stirred websites like YouTube and Reddit months before. The video, directed by Brendan Canty, reflects recent violent discrimination against the LGBTQ community in Russia. Among its provocative scenes are a male couple’s make-out session and, later, the abduction, dragging, and beating of one of these men by a gang in hoodies and masks.
“Take Me To Church” most likely went viral because of emotional reactions to its video, but I hope the song alone gets as much acknowledgment. Through trying to judge it, label it, and make sense of it, I’ve gotten to know the song, and I may have fallen in love with “Take Me To Church.”