Although the stars of the show in this production are clearly Hozier’s songwriting and singing abilities, the reverb–saturated mix also makes a strong sonic statement in its own right. On the plus side, such heavy reverb use immediately sets this mix apart from most mainstream productions, so there’s no question that it catches the ear immediately within pretty much any modern music playlist. It’s cool also that it sits so naturally with the ecclesiastical conceit at the heart of the lyric. However, it comes at a price: one of the strongest musical moments, the four–note ‘scotch snap’ riff which underpins the main lyrical hook becomes seriously blurred, which undermines its musical power for me. In fact, I think it’s telling that all the live/televised performances I’ve seen him do of this song have been mixed to be much better defined in this respect, so I don’t think I’m the only engineer harbouring this view. I don’t think it’d have taken more than automating/EQ’ing a few effects sends/returns to clarify this aspect of the single mix — it seems a wasted opportunity.
On the subject of live performances, I noticed that Hozier typically sings his second verse section (1:27–1:59) roughly a fourth lower on stage than on record, something which makes sense to me on two counts. The first is the purely practical issue that the recorded line is right at the top of his register, so presumably puts a lot of strain on his voice. Fatigue is a big issue for performing musicians, so I can see the logic in removing those tiring high–register notes from the verse in order to conserve stamina for the choruses, especially as Hozier already seems to struggle to avoid those higher pitches drifting flat — even when, as on Later With Jools Holland, the whole song was wisely transposed down a tone.
But there’s an aesthetic dimension to the decision too: I think the song works better on a musical level with that verse lower, inasmuch as it differentiates the verses better from the choruses. Without the high-G notes of “tasty” and “plenty”, the hook “take me to church” simply makes a bigger impact, not only in terms of pitch, but also in terms of emotional intensity as the vocal timbre inevitably becomes more strained.