Saturday, November 14, 2009

What Kate Did Next

I remember the first time I saw Kate Bush and it’s fair to say that she did not make a favourable impression: mad-eyed, wild-haired, dressed by Laura Ashley, she was wailing uncontrollably about a novel by one of the bloody Bronte sisters. As if this were not bad enough, she was also given the seal of approval (a.k.a. kiss of death) by my younger sister, so was, by definition, uncool. This was most definitely not The Clash. However, over the years, I grew to appreciate her enigmatic brilliance, gradually realising that this was one female artist that most guys secretly liked. Even the erstwhile Sex Pistol, John Lydon, saluted her at the Q Awards in 2001, describing her music as “fucking brilliant”.

Slowly, but surely, it dawned on me that Kate Bush was a true original: an immensely inventive, supremely talented force of nature. Impossible to pigeonhole, few women have expanded the vocabulary of music as bewitchingly as Kate Bush, taking as many risks along the way as Prince. Signed by EMI at the tender age of sweet sixteen, she was regarded as an eccentric genius, having written over two hundred songs before she released her first album, “The Kick Inside”, in 1978. Regarded as a semi-recluse (with some justification, it has to be said), she has only toured once, as her ambitious mixture of music, choreography and over the top theatricals lead to a financial disaster. Ever since, she has effectively created music in a vacuum without any of the traditional feedback from a live audience, making her creativity all the more remarkable.

"Isn't she lovely?"

It all came together in 1985 with the release of “Hounds of Love”, a powerful, undeniable record. Described by that man Lydon as “beyond an album – an opera”, it’s a monumental achievement, showcasing a vividly fertile imagination and featuring an eclectic collection of frighteningly original songs. It’s a profound, complex piece of work with a dreamy, mystical sensibility, but it’s also enormously inspirational. Contrasting images project her own vulnerability as she tackles life’s big issues with moving drama and gripping intensity.

Although her fifth album, this was the first one that she had produced completely on her own terms, having built a recording studio at her home. Here she could work at her own pace, no longer constrained by the label’s budget, and could make use of the time and space to indulge her artistic whims. This gave her greater confidence, resulting in a stronger coherence and new-found maturity to her experimentation, not just the music, but also the lyrics, which became increasingly personal.

"The Mad Max years"

As a producer, she makes great use of the Fairlight synthesizer, drum machine and fretless bass, perfectly capturing the mood of each song, but it’s the vocal performance that is most impressive. Abandoning the shrill, high-pitched falsetto of her early work, her vocals are now mostly in a deeper pitch that gives the lyrics greater maturity, though she has not completely sacrificed the extraordinary range of which she is capable. As one of the sound engineers commented:

She’s quietly spoken and petite. She’d be beside you in the control room chatting away and then step through into the booth and this amazingly powerful, passionate voice would come out, every fibre on her being committed to it. She was using her voice in a completely unashamed way.

Bush’s previous album, “The Dreaming”, was a darker, less accessible record and the great achievement of “Hounds of Love” was managing to blend the adventurous spirit of that record with the popular appeal of her earlier releases. Not that the spirit of invention was lacking. No, Kate still expressed her individuality with strange sound effects, spoken passages, distorted voices and diverse musical styles that few had attempted before. Although it’s very experimental, it does not feel in any way pretentious. Indeed, it’s extraordinary how all the elements she had been playing with in previous efforts finally meet in perfect alignment.

"Let's get physical"

So, she managed to retain her artistic integrity, while also giving the pop consumers something to chew on – having your cake and letting them eat it, if you will. Bush took great pains to distinguish between her more literary, esoteric style and her skill at producing great pop for the masses. This schizophrenic approach is taken to its extreme on this album, which is split into two sides of very different music with the hits featuring on “Hounds of Love” and the art bursting out of “The Ninth Wave”. While the latter can be read as Bush’s reluctance to stay in the limelight, the former shows her unwillingness to give it up.

The different sides of the album also spoke of the duality of sky and sea with “Hounds of Love” looking to the heavens with startling clarity and “The Ninth Wave” descending to the, er, waves. This is a theme that Bush would return to many years later in her 2005 album “Aerial” with its two suites (sweets?): “A Sea of Honey” and “A Sky of Honey”. The record takes us on an incredible journey from the high clouds to the depths of the ocean.

"Stand and deliver"

The more accessible “Hounds of Love” contains five conventional pop songs dealing with relationships, addressing different forms of love. Radio-friendly anthems they may have been, but the arrangements and themes were anything but trite, steeped in lyrical and aural sensuality. Nevertheless, this side provided four amazing hit singles: “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”, “Cloudbusting”, “Hounds of Love” and “The Big Sky”.

Dazzling as these compositions are, they almost pale into insignificance beside the epic magnificence of the mythologically charged “The Ninth Wave”, based on a poem by Tennyson. Half a concept album, it tells the story of a woman lost at sea, facing death by drowning, and the tortured night she spends in the water, when she undergoes a series of out-of-body experiences. As she slips in and out of consciousness, the deeply affecting music evokes her shifting moods of fear, uncertainty, suffocation and, ultimately, hope and optimism. It’s a disturbing, brooding and claustrophobic journey, but every second beats with an energy that draws the listener into the nightmare vision. Like a complex movie soundtrack, it’s an extremely challenging and bold piece of music, which Bush herself admitted:

It was incredibly difficult to actually be brave enough to go for it. I had the feeling that that was what I wanted to do. But then I started to get scared of it.

Each song is memorable, but the sum is greater than the parts and it’s a remarkable accomplishment, referencing birth and rebirth. Although it seems to be a straightforward tale of a woman drowning, there’s enough ambiguity in the final track to keep the jury out.

"Look at the fingers on that"

The album opens with the absolutely sensational “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”, which still sends shivers up the spine. It’s an overwhelming song of unparalleled emotional rawness and density, simultaneously enthralling and intellectually interesting. The song deals with the communication problems between the sexes in a relationship, as she wants a man to feel the way she does, “And if I only could/I'd make a deal with God/And I'd get him to swap our places/Be running up that road/Be running up that hill/With no problems”. However, it’s also one of the most sensual songs ever written, as Bush sings with urgency and passion, before the pulsating drum beat builds to a thrilling climax, “Come on baby, come on darling/Let me steal this moment from you now”. Orgasm Addict, eat your heart out.

The title track, “Hounds of Love”, is about the fear of being overwhelmed by love, “I found a fox/Caught by dogs/He let me take him in my hands/His little heart/It beats so fast/And I'm ashamed of running away”. As she flees the hounds, she’s unsure whether she wants to evade love or give in to her feelings. The amazing use of percussion and highly visual lyrics (“Take my shoes off/And throw them in the lake/And I'll be/Two steps on the water”) provide a thrilling transition from naivety to experience, “Well, here I go/Don't let me go/Hold me down!” – a long way from the opening, fearful lines, taken from horror film “Night of the Demon”, spoken by a actor, Maurice Denham, “It’s in the trees! It’s coming!”

"Ooh, yeah, you're amazing. We think you're incredible"

There follow three tracks written from the perspective of children, which is a theme that had exercised Bush from her very first album with the classic, “The Man with the Child in his Eyes”. First up is “The Big Sky”, a flamboyantly infectious song about taking the time to daydream and discover life as we did when we were children, “Rolling over like a great big cloud/Rolling over with the Big Sky!” Although boasting a happy, bouncy tune, it also deals with the frustration of an artist continually questioned by critics with little understanding of the creative process, especially after they were baffled by “The Dreaming”, which they described as too obtuse, “You never understood me/You never really tried”.

Mother Stands For Comfort” is ostensibly about the love of a mother for her child, but it slowly reveals itself to be a dark, haunting tale about a killer seeking refuge with his mother, knowing that she will always protect him, ““She knows that I've been doing something wrong/But she won't say anything/Mother will hide the murderer/Mother hides the madman/Mother will stay mum”. The sound of breaking glass in the background suggest a tumultuous relationship (or is it shattered innocence?), while some of the lyrics describe the pent-up anger of adolescence (“just like a crowd rioting inside”), but ultimately a mother’s love is unconditional.

"Looking for some hot stuff"

As is the son’s bond with his father in “Cloudbusting”, which tells the touching story of a scientist being taken away from the child by the authorities, “You looked too small in their big, black car/To be a threat to the men in power/I hid my yo-yo in the garden/I can't hide you from the government/Oh, God. Daddy - I won't forget”. Like much of Bush’s work, there are literary influences behind the lyrics and these are based on Peter Reich’s “A Book of Dreams”, which you can see in Donald Sutherland’s pocket in the video of the song, when he portrayed radical naturalist Wilhelm Reich. The hypnotic rhythm and beautifully arranged strings (and a steam engine!) perfectly capture the menacing feel of a gathering storm, but the tragic sense of loss gives way to an inspirational, uplifting chorus, “Every time it rains/You're here in my head/Like the sun coming out/Ooh, I just know that something good is gonna happen”.

You can say that again, for we are about to dive into “The Ninth Wave”, which begins with the beautiful lullaby “And Dream of Sheep”, establishing the intimate, despairing atmosphere that permeates the whole suite. The gentle piano melody and Kate’s fragile vocals accentuate the sadness of the moment, as she desperately tries to stay awake to avoid the freezing sea claiming its next victim, though there is an ambivalence to her thoughts, as she is also on the verge of giving up, “I tune in to some friendly voices/Talking 'bout stupid things/I can't be left to my imagination/Let me be weak/Let me sleep/And dream of sheep”.

"Are you living in a box?"

The moody, ominous “Under Ice” is accompanied by suitably chilling, jagged violins that cut the atmosphere like a knife, as the protagonist has a dream in which she is skating on the ice, before noticing that someone is trapped beneath it – and slowly realising that it is, in fact, her, “There's something moving under/Under the ice/Moving under ice – through water/Trying to get out of the cold water/It's me." The sense of urgency increases throughout the song, culminating in a keening howl of futile despair, “Something, someone – help them/It's me”.

Kate continues to hallucinate in the sinister “Waking the Witch”, which starts peacefully enough with a variety of voices urging the girl to wake up, before exploding into a nightmarish cacophony of sound that announces a thrilling call and response between the demonic, distorted (male) voice of a witchfinder and the staccato, panicky cries of a girl frantically defending herself, ultimately in vain, “What say you, good people?/Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!” There is a powerful feminist stance in this track, as Kate confirmed in an interview:

I think it’s very interesting the whole concept of witch hunting and the fear of women’s power. In a way it’s very sexist behaviour and I feel that female intuition and instincts are very strong and are still put down, really.

The pace is relaxed with the trippy “Watching You Without Me”, where Kate imagines returning to her lover as “a ghost in our home”, as she observes her husband living on without her. You feel an aching melancholy, as she struggles to make contact, “You can't hear me/You can't feel me/Here in the room with you now”, but the song does tap into the spiritual hope that the spirit of those that we love will survive. Again, the music perfectly conveys the void left by the missing wife, who “should have been home hours ago”.

"Whatever happened to Haysi Fantayzee?"

There’s another change of pace with the energetic “Jig of Life”, where Kate clearly shows her Irish roots. It feels like a wake after a funeral, but there’s a hint of optimism to the lyrics, in which an older version of Kate urges her to fight for her life in order that she may exist in the future, “C'mon and let me live, girl!/This moment in time/It doesn't belong to you/It belongs to me/And to your little boy and to your little girl”.

The contemplative “Hello Earth” cleverly recaps the previous events, as Kate reflects on the storm that brought her to this awful predicament, bowing to man’s insignificance in the face of nature’s power, Go to sleep, little Earth/I was there at the birth/Out of the cloudburst/The head of the tempest/Murderer!/Why did I go?” Male choral chants lend a subdued air to proceedings, when Kate bids the world a shockingly calm goodbye, as she accepts her fate, lapsing into German for some reason, “Tiefer, tiefer/Irgendwo in der Tiefe/Gibt es ein Licht (deeper, deeper, somewhere in the depths, there is a light)”. Everything fades into darkness and silence, before a final moment of stillness …

"It's in the trees!"

And then a bright light bursts forth through “The Morning Fog”, a celebratory song, though it’s not entirely clear what Kate is celebrating: either it is the life-affirming, ultimate happy ending where she is overjoyed at being rescued, “Being born again/Into the sweet morning fog”; or simply her parting thoughts to those closest to her, “I'll kiss the ground/I'll tell my mother/I'll tell my father/I'll tell my loved one/I'll tell my brother/How much I love them”. Actually, it doesn’t really matter. The song leaves you with a warm glow, a sense of satisfaction either way, “D'you know what?/I love you better now”.

Kate Bush was the first woman to have a UK number one single with a self-written song. Not a lot of people know that, but her influence on music is there for all to see with the likes of Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Alison Goldfrapp and Florence Welch (and her Machine) owing her an enormous debt of gratitude for introducing people to the world of the literate, innovative female singer.

"Reaching out for the hand"

“Hounds of Love” was a heroically experimental, dramatically beautiful masterpiece that sounded like nothing else back in 1985 – and it still doesn’t. Firmly establishing Kate Bush’s reputation, it meant that she was no longer a guilty pleasure, but could be appreciated for the genius she truly was.


  1. I love Ms. Bush (and especially Hounds of Love) as well.

    I'm not as erudite (can't spot a fretless bass or a fairlight to save my life) but I loved this piece of writing.

    You have some great stuff on this site.

  2. Very well written. A perfect listening guide for a little person that I know, waiting to be initiated into the world of KB.


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