Hozier's 'Take Me To Church' is a sex song

But not in the way that some people think. The writer for Forbes.com, for instance, believes that this is a weighty piece of social commentary -- the sort of real-world acknowledgement we're all supposedly desperate for. Well, I don't buy it. I think this is a song of sexual passion, pure and simple. I'll show you why and I'll tell you how it's done.

Sometimes it helps to be a songwriter to understand how songs are written -- and what they mean.

Consider the opening lyrics of 'Take Me To Church':

My lover's got humour
She's the giggle at a funeral
Knows everybody's disapproval
I should've worshipped her sooner

Oh yes, how so? I think we can assume worship in the biblical sense.

It goes on:

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

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—

So we were right about that, then.

I was born sick,
But I love it
Command me to be well

Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.

I've had this song playing in my head for a few days now. (Yes, it's that powerful.) And I think that this song is not motivated by concerns about a church at all -- unless it be the church of eros. This song works just as well -- or better, if you want to grasp the emotional drive behind it -- if you 'read' the lines as something more like:

Take me to bed
I'll worship like a man at the shrine of your eyes [or anything else that drives me wild]
We'll share in our sins and I will sharpen my 'knife'
Offer me that deathless death [sexual fulfillment]
Good God, let me give you my life [because I want you]

I'm not saying anything earth-shattering: we all know that the bliss of bliss with a lover is as church-like an experience as many of us want to get. It is soulful; it is worship. But the more I think about this song, the less striking it is, and the more trite. Don't get me wrong: it is a fabulous piece of songcraft and music-making (considering the song both as a melody and as a performance). The singing is gorgeous, the instrumentation super. But still, what we have here is hardly a news flash: Hot young musician prefers sex to religion. Nothing exceptional in that!

Returning to the origins of the song as the work we now hear: perhaps that 'worship' line was very different at the outset, when the song was being written. It could just as easily have started out as 'I'll worship like a --- at the shrine of your fly' or 'the shrine of your shrine': what I mean is that the melody and emotions are often in place before the polished lyrics. In fact, as a songwriter I am much more likely to fiddle with the lyrics than I am with the essential melody, which strikes me more or less unmediated, like lightning. And generally, too, even though I am lucky in that words and melody tend to come at the same time for me -- songs are provoked by an emotion that my mind can easily put words to -- it is still the melody that has the upper hand.

The upshot is that when writing a new song, there are three possibilities with the lyrics. One is that the lyrics are more or less perfect as the song is being written. (It's never perfect: there are always tweaks or re-writes.) The other is that you don't have all the lyrics as the melody is coming to you, so you use 'la la la' or what I call 'placeholder' words: they're nonsensical wrong words but they flesh out the musical sound. Then there are words that really say what you mean but they're not presentable for some reason. For instance, I wrote a song recently which began with my singing 'Vitamin E, gonna save my baby' because I was looking after my dog's scrape. But you can't have a song about Vitamin E. So I changed the word to 'Liberty', and now the song has a life of its own, revolving around that subject. A serious artist would prefer to sublimate 'take me to bed' to something that sounds as though it might be its opposite -- and the tension after all is titillating.* Not only that, but the erotic longing for the transcendent applies not only to bed heaven (is that the only place? how restricting) but to the heaven of belief. So there is a game being played here, a riffing on things that look opposite but aren't. 

A songwriter may well want his music to be taken for a higher meaning that it didn't initially have: a social-justice meaning, for instance. He might want listeners to assume that he is making a social or political commentary. But I think this is a song of passion, just as its introduction promises, and as it lasts words confirm: sex is the cleanser, the state of 'innocence':

No masters or kings when the ritual begins
There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin
In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene
Only then I am human
Only then I am clean


May the writer of these words learn about political philosophy. Then he will be highly human, as well as erotically 'clean'. (Anyone can have sex; not anyone can reason and appreciate the good and the beautiful.)

*'Sublimate', as some people are unaware, does not mean to repress or bury within, but rather to elevate a baser impulse to a higher one, or even to veil a baser thought or motive with a more virtuous one. Sublimation is generally a good thing, is done all the time by civilized human beings, and contributes to justice and a richer human happiness.

For those that like 'big emotion' music, how about this (I love foreign-language music: you soak up the human voice as an instrument without fussy concern for what it is saying).