Renaissance Lives in the Songs of Hozier

by Mina Yücelen | March 23, 2024

Aside from the catchy, smouldering, melancholic and husky tunes, I’ve always loved the rough ‘subject-matter’ of Hozier’s music – singing about Idealism in prison, and Chivalry fallen on his sword. It really is something else.


Hozier boldly name-drops terms of immense cultural weight and even questions God, life, meaning and love. Not to mention, he ties it all in with a sexy melody, which is left reverberating through you. Hozier undoubtedly has carved a niche for himself. Listening to Hozier has become, like most things on the internet, a symbol for sophisticated taste and poetic inclination. He has been praised for the depth and complexity of his lyrics. Even though I have loved his music for the last five years, I still find myself questioning that — depth and complexity? In a work that appeals to millions? I’m dubious. Hozier seems, perhaps rightfully, judged on the way he sounds, and how catchy his songs are. You know the kind: songs made to mumble and hum incorrectly (were those the lyrics? I never knew).


I recently saw him live in Wembley (yes it was life changing, yes, I am still reeling from it) and you can really see the fanbase he has created for himself – idiosyncratic and creative senses of style; carefully curated but genuine. Simply put—everyone is fucking cool. It really struck me there that a) I could not gatekeep a very well-known singer and b) there were thousands of people who forged a personal relationship with his lyrics (and even a para-social relationship with his image). It was very surreal hearing the way we can simply feel like we know someone without having interacted with them, and also believe that they in turn, somehow, know us.


Seeing someone in concert, at least for me, becomes less about the music and more about the physicality of the person. It becomes about seeing and even, to an extent, being seen. I had an amazing time at the concert – met incredible people, had a few religious experiences and also got to see The Last Dinner Party live (I watched them with my jaw hanging open). And yet – I came home and a bit of the intense fervour of understanding and identification I had felt with some of the songs had lessened. Had they lost their literary value – belonging to the world of pop culture and celebrity worship (as well as idealization)? Did they even have literary value to begin with?


I’ve decided to challenge this prejudice of mine, to find the literary lineage in Hozier’s work. I am forcing myself to really sit with the lyrics, to allow some classical allusions to emerge. I sat myself down in the Old Library at Balliol with a print out of Hozier’s lyrics. Admittedly a bit disconcerting considering I had last been sat there with a big tome of The Faerie Queene. Spiritus Mundi or not, Spenser and Hozier now at least could claim a shared occupation of physical space. After a few hours of intense annotation (after which I had even stopped singing the song to myself as I read the refrains), I had now begun to think that, yes, you could find the same images and allusions that occupied the minds of English Renaissance writers in the works of Hozier.


This may seem like a sacrilege to some – but I am about to consider Hozier with some of the writers that stared at me from the every-growing pile on my shelf as I wrote my essays on Early Modern literature. So, I invoke the names of a few Renaissance masters and influences – let’s see how Sidney, Marlowe and Virgil sit next to Hozier – and, perhaps, how they exist within his very discourse.


NFWMB. My favourite song. I know what you’re thinking, and trust me, I agree. It really does not seem lyrically all that promising– an abbreviated title that spells out ‘Nothing Fucks with my Baby’. Putting my literary hat on, I can see that the use of profanity and colloquial “baby” certainly does not strike an instant connection with the Renaissance. But – and, hear me out – I believe this song complicates an existing Biblical discourse. It’s not dissimilar to Yeats’ poem The Second Coming (Not Renaissance of course, but important in its utilisation of Biblical and alchemical language and symbolism also prevalent in Early Modern works).


Yeats called the Spiritus Mundi “a universal memory and a ‘muse’ of sorts that provides inspiration to the poet or writer”. Well, one can begin by questioning who qualifies as an artist then – and not to insult anyone’s personal taste in music or art (my mother particularly loves the Turkish idiom that ‘colours and tastes shouldn’t be debated’) – but our understanding of “tortured poets” have changed over time. Artists belong to a great lineage, an atemporal imagination.


“The end was soon”. The song begins with an ending –not just any ending, but the ultimate ending. And suddenly the song positions itself at the end of time, looking backwards at us. Some critics have argued that the End of Days was prevalent in the minds of Early Modern writers. With the Reformation, the anti-Christ had emerged in the form of the Pope, and the Catholic church had corrupted the word of God – against which the Protestants stood as a self-proclaimed symbol of righteous piety. Amidst such a perceived religious binary opposition, the forces of good and evil could easily be identified.


What do we do better, I ask, than construct binaries, pick a side, then pit them against one another? And so good and evil, easily identified, are placed on opposite sides of the ring as people watch, betting and hoping.


In addition to the “it” that crawls towards Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus, there is a “you” in Hozier’s song who is then implored to “Give your heart and soul to charity/’Cause the rest of you/The best of you Honey, belongs to me”. I find Catholic parallels in this: he’s giving away his heart and the soul to “charity”. There’s something blasphemous here… There’s also some implicit sexuality (of course): what, I ask, remains when the heart and soul are bequeathed away? You got it: the body. The body remains and “belongs” to a “me” that is not God.


Then comes the crux of the song: “Nothing fucks with my baby/ Nothing can get a look in on my baby/ Nothing fucks with my baby/ Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing”. It’s hard to read it without breaking into song Where does such total profanity sit within my literary analysis? Maybe this is a peak of “modernity”. Maybe it’s a rejection of the discourse and tradition of the Apocalypse. The irreverential “fuck” certainly debases the sacred. Not to mention that “nothing” rejects the very existence of a higher power. The only presences in the song are you, I and the it. Kind of sexy, right?


The “it”, perhaps the “beast”, has arrived—yet, where is He? Our beginning was ex nihilo – is the end ad nihilum? My search takes me to look for some alchemy: the narrator proclaims “If I was born as a blackthorn tree/I’d wanna be felled by you/Held by you Fuel the pyre of your enemies”. The tree transforms into pyre, then the tree to the cross – the story begins from the sapling and ends in flames. It’s about Christ. With his sacrifice, the Other is created – the “non-Christian”, the “infidel”. Again, we’re back to another presentation of sacrilege: the very body and role of Christ are usurped as the “I” wears his skin and burns in his body. The song ends with a “nothing” and the slouching “it” is forgotten amidst the resounding nothingness.


It’s Wasteland, Baby (the end of days, the Apocalypse, nuclear mass destruction, environmental collapse etc. however you refer to it) – Hozier has brought nothing but nothingness itself. He openly rejects the possibility of heaven. Yet the Old Gods similarly live within these songs – and, like Renaissance writings, alongside and within a Biblical discourse.


While my friend and I were waiting for the concert to begin (we sat outside for hours to get front row and it was so worth it) we had begun to talk with some other dedicated fans. While exchanging Top Five Favourites someone said “I know no one likes Run but I do!” and I heard myself gasp. No one likes Run???? Absolutely not – I refuse to believe it as much as I will do everything to disprove it. The characters of Run are astounding. The “I”, “you”, and “her” tug and pull at one another. Hot take: this song can be read as an analysis and representation of Zeus and Hera’s relationship, and, inevitably, Zeus’s ancient infidelity. “Rare is this love, keep it covered I need you to run to me, run to me, lover. Run until you feel your lungs bleeding”. So, dare I ask, who is this “you”? Is she one of the many lovers of Zeus who run from the ancient rage of Hera, urged on by Zeus who watches in meek silence from his seat of Olympian godhead? The lover demands pain. She wants a corporeal sacrifice in blood for the continuation of love. Whatever rocks your boat…


I think ‘she’ might just be Semele, a lover of Zeus, who demanded to see his real form and died because of its unbearable divinity. Maybe the unidentified nature of the “lover” figure could be interpreted as the creation of a Platonic form of someone who has to be sacrificed endlessly for the continuation of love. Then, the lover must “run”. The Beloved on the Run hints at Ovidian stories of Atalanta and Daphne, within which both Atalanta and Daphne have to evade the fate of the lover through ceaseless movement. The “run” is eternal, painful, and self-sacrificial. But it is vital.


The identity of the “Lover” within the narrative of Zeus and Hera is complicated with the invitation of “her”, as “the farrow know/ Her hungry eye, her ancient soul/ It’s carried by the sneering menagerie”.


I think that the “her” refers to different people, or even blends the characters together at times. Maybe the ‘her’ is Hera this time. Her cruelty is totally ‘timeless’. Hera becomes an abandoned relic of a past love, left behind like the figure of Dido in Marlowe’s Dido Queen of Carthage. “Her hungry eye, her ancient soul” falls away to reveal her “what it is to grow Beneath her sky, her punishing cold/ To slowly learn of her ancient misery”. Cruelty gives way to pity. Sigh.


The lover/predator/victim is “twisted by something/ A shame without a sin/ Like how she twisted the bog man/ After she married him”. Maybe this is the Hera being made aware of her cruelty. But sin is permanent, shame is temporary. Gods cannot sin. Hera is anthropomorphised by Marlowe.  It’s just like Golding’s preface to the Metamorphosis, where the gods become mere satirical representations of vice from which to extract Christian lessons in morality.


Why does it hurt to listen to this? What qualifies something to be pleading, bleeding and also attractive in such a wounded vulnerability? I don’t know how you choose to indulge in “this is my entire life and obsession” songs of the moment, but I listen to them on loop for a few hours straight. And this one urges me to run, run, run, and run – and Hozier’s voice lifts and falls. It reminds me of the scene where Marlowe’s Aeneas, and Homer’s Odysseus, become the bard of their own stories by recounting their pain to their listeners. Perhaps a modern-day equivalent would be listening to a book narrated by its author. There is an intimacy in this vulnerability.


The twisting, both of and by the lover, is endless and ouroboric. It’s a cycle of pain which allows for the continuation and multiplication of mythology. It goes on: “he” is then introduced, perhaps a continuation of the “I”, perhaps another. “Rushing to shore to meet her/ Foaming with loneliness/ White hands to fondle and beat her/ Give her his onliness”. The solitude of this new figure is rabid. The “fondling” and the “beating” hold within them the paradoxes of love and marriage. The supposed perfection of these Platonic characters playing the lovers is destroyed before my very eyes. Not joined yet not separated, one is craving the loneliness the other cannot escape. The suffering goes on.


The first sentence of the song is repeated thrice at the very end to really bring it home – it’s the painful movement ad infinitum. Here’s the worst bit: for mythology to survive, the suffering of women, whether seeming to be the chasing predator or the running victim, is required. The remembrance of the “heroic deeds of men” in their “onliness”, for their achievement of the destined and the spreading of their seed (literally and metaphorically), depends on the woman running (both away and to) and the woman abandoned. As the Ovidian figures of Calliope, Circe, Dido, Medea, and Hera, represented by Renaissance writers, so do the figures of Hozier’s song continue their eternal plight with bleeding lungs.


Hozier is more than just catchy: he operates side by side with writers of the English Renaissance. His lyrics turn to the Biblical and Classical. His songs use the same Spiritus Mundi. The Renaissance and its allusory poetry are not dead, and Art – it belongs to a great lineage that continues to flow into the current day.  Justice for sexy songs and for the value we refuse to attach to the popular and the erotic – and if you still disagree with me, read Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, or if you are using this article for a means of procrastination and would prefer something shorter, his Elegies, Book One, 5. Then we can have a chat.


Words by Mina Yücelen. Image courtesy of Mina Yücelen.