Middle School Gothic: Hozier Self-Titled and the Whitewashing of the Irish


Hozier Album Art.

Jessica Anthony

Hozier has a voice you can’t ignore. Born Andrew John Hozier-Byrne, Hozier is an undoubtedly talented musician and instrumentalist, but the main appeal of his music has always been what he sings and how he sings it. His voice has a kind of booming power that turns heads – the first time I heard “Take Me to Church” by Hozier from his self-titled album Hozier, it was difficult to think of anything other than the way this man could sing. Then, of course, there are his lyrics. Poetic as they are impactful, Hozier has a way with words unrivaled by many of his contemporaries. He focuses on themes of love, religion, politics, and sex, all of which are beautifully married to the instruments he sets these stories to. It is with all of this in mind that it becomes clear just how indie rock sensation Hozier first took the world by storm after his 2013 debut.

“Take Me to Church” was the first song Hozier ever released, recorded in a makeshift attic studio in his home country of Ireland. The song itself is about his imaginary lover as he compares their sex to religious worship, in turn criticising shame and purity culture within religious systems. The subject matter proved to be incredibly controversial, especially amongst religious circles. This was despite the fact that Hozier maintained it was not intended to be anti-religion, but rather critiquing the particular policy many churches uphold of religious purity. He further cemented this as the thesis of his song with the music video, which was a blatant criticism of homophobia. This only garnered more backlash. This criticism did not seem to deter him, however, as he went to release his debut self-titled album Hozier in 2014, which continued to expand upon these ideas.

In songs like “From Eden,” “Foreigner’s God,” and to an extent “Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene,” Hozier continues to explore religious imagery and mixes it with themes of sexual desire and other political commentary. Other songs of his often explore other touchy and controversial subjects, such as “Cherry Wine,” which tells the story of an abusive relationship, or “To Be Alone,” which covers themes of PTSD. Although his music never became explicitly political until his second album, Wasteland, Baby! The undertones of activism have always been present in his music.

It is at this point that we must then examine what the music on Hozier actually sounds like, because although his lyrics were not usually overtly political (in fact, lyrically Hozier is an album about love) but the musical references he made painted a very different story. Hozier has not been shy about the fact that he is heavily influenced by blues, gospel, and other predominantly African American genres of music. Nearly all of his songs feature some form of gospel choir, perhaps most prominently “Work Song,” and bluesy twang is a staple as evidenced best by “To Be Alone,” and “Jackie and Wilson,” the latter of which features the line, “We’ll name our children, Jackie and Wilson/Raise ’em on rhythm and blues”. Its title is also a play on esteemed rhythm and blues musician Jackie Wilson – an African American man. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being influenced by other styles of music, especially when someone so diligently credits them as Hozier does. with songs like “Nina Cried Power,” featuring famed gospel singer Mavis Staples from his second album. In this, he goes through a list name-by-name of the musicians that informed the music he makes today. However, what becomes strange is how he is viewed in most popular culture spaces not as a musician influenced by African American music, but rather for his handful of soft acoustic guitar songs. In fact, only four of the fifteen songs on Hozier can really be categorized as such. His Irish heritage plays into this a great deal, with fans often referring to him as some kind of exotic deity and calling him a ‘forest creature’, which both erases the very non-white influences of his music and commodifies his Irish identity into something easier to swallow for his often white audience. In reality, however, his Irish upbringing played a large part in his draw to activism. The Irish civil rights movement was directly inspired by the American civil rights movement of the 1960’s, and the Irish identity as one of a colonized nation likely directly informs Hozier’s musical politics.

Although a historically marginalized identity, through the sort of unification of all European ancestry under the monolith of whiteness, Irish heritage does not often come with the baggage it used to in American society. However, with Hozier’s borrowing of African American music styles, he very deliberately seeks to call back to when Irish Americans and African Americans stood in solidarity with one another into the very sound of his music.

It must be mentioned that the music itself is fantastic. Hozier is the master of restraint when it comes to his music, with every sound and instrument featured feeling like a deliberate and thoughtful addition to every song. It leaves the listener waiting desperately in anticipation of what is to happen next. His sense for rhythm also shines through, particularly in “From Eden,” which was written in 5/4 time to create a joyous swinging tempo. It was the kind of bombshell sound that left people craving more, which finally came in 2019 with the release of his second album.

In this second album, Hozier clearly strived to make his politics something that could not be sidelined – sophomore album Wasteland, Baby! is nothing but political commentary. He was criticized for this, with people wondering why Hozier suddenly became an activist. In this it became evident people never truly grasped what he was trying to do. This was what his music was always about – people just never listened closely enough.

In retrospect, the signs of politics were woven directly into the fibres of Hozier’s music, but these messages were not the only thing to appreciate about his songwriting. The way he masterfully intertwines his influences with his lived experiences is hauntingly beautiful. Hozier‘s legacy is long lived and the album has aged beautifully, holding up to the test of time with magnetic grace. Every track feels special, with its own story to tell. His voice is one that cannot be ignored, the question is whether or not we are willing to listen.