Kate Bush

Now, this, this is what you call an end to a magnificent run. Releasing an album, Hounds of Love, in 1985, that if you’d have dropped it today, yesterday, and many days in the future it would trump whatever was out there, and be the de facto best album of the year. So, far beyond whatever the hell else was released that year, Rain Dogs by Tom Waits, Tim by the Replacements, Psychocandy by Jesus and Mary Chain, Fables of Reconstruction by R.E.M., This Nation’s Saving Grace by the Fall, New Moon Rising by Husker Du, Iron Maiden’s Live After Death all great, but all falling short of the vision presented here…on this year, the year she knocked Madonna’s Like A Virgin out the top of the English charts, no one could touch the sheer quality of music Kate created. Anyone can make something similar to those other greats, but can you touch a true icon?

Taking a three year breather from the truly unheralded heights of 1982’s The Dreaming when everybody was ready to count her out, she came out from the shadows with another shot across the bow aiming far more forward than any of her peers attempted to shoot.

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After receiving a commercial drubbing from the inspiring but ultimately too challenging (for its time) release of The Dreaming, Kate was experiencing a weird state lacking stimulation to do much music. Rather than mire herself too much in the dumps of insecurity, she took a vacation and spent more time with her family and partner. While away, eating chocolates, having a good time, and enjoying her bit of luxury, she commissioned the creation of a 48-track studio. Once completed, this studio would allow her to free herself from the restraints any record label would impose on her. Early demos she created via Fairlight CMI synthesizer, LinnDrum drum machine, and piano, gave way to fairly more strident sessions based on Irish folk accompaniment and art rock experimentation.

Kate Bush and her Fairlight

Youth, Killing Joke bassist, who played on the album, rightfully says the production gives you a clue of what’s coming:

“It gives the album a slightly futuristic atmosphere,” says Youth. “She gave me some direction, let me do what I liked, then she chopped it up and arranged it in the Fairlight. It doesn’t have that natural dynamic arrangement and progression that you have with musicians playing together – it’s quite flat and modern. People work like that today all the time, but then it was quite unusual. It was about selection rather than musicianship, the currency of ideas reflected in the music rather than academic virtuosity.”
as told to Uncut Magazine.

Hounds of Love album cover.

The conception of the album was for it to have two sides, based on separate suites. The first suite, the Hounds of Love section, would be where all those avant-pop singles would reside. Tracks like “Running Up That Hill” a put yourself in my shoes mix of post-punk, R&B, and electro-dance music was extraordinary. This is the music you hear on the radio right now, mixing samples and pitch-altered vocals, this was Yeezus-like autotune art before it was nary a thought in anyone’s mind. “Hounds of Love” the uplifting anthem to naivety that everyone wishes they could write, so much so that everyone would much rather cover it, than try to top it. “Do, do, do, dos” and strings matching the welcoming natural spirit envisioned by the cover photo of the album.

“The Big Sky” takes sonic cues from Big Country (any wonder that Kate lent vocals to an album of theirs a year later) and the life force of just taking time to look up in the sky and wondering, she creates this magnetic Afro-influenced dance banger that just keeps building relentlessly with new percussion be it handclaps or shape-shifting drums. “Mother Stands for Comfort” reimagines the feeling of Peter Gabriel’s Security sonic entreaties and creates this first hint of darkness, amidst all the sampled sonics imbibing the recording.

This first side ends splendidly on the string-driven “Cloudbusting”. Taking Wilhelm Reich‘s genuinely interesting “cloudbuster” ideas (as related by the wide-eyed view of his son) she entreats us to this brilliant combination of real and sampled strings, intertwining with the feeling of anxious optimism that Peter Reich felt hoping that his papa’s dream would occur. Its such an interesting track. In it, you can hear the dance of youth (all strings and sashaying major chords) mixing with the marshall feeling of adulthood (rolling percussion and urgent vocals), together they create one of the most melancholic hit dance songs to ever grace the charts. This side, so genuinely deserving of all the success (the first in the US coming with “Running Up That Hill”) dictates a new kind of pop music that had yet to exist in that era. This side, was the one that flowed like jazz manna to Kate, in that time.

“The Ninth Wave” cover inlay.

However, the side that sticks closer to the heart, on second thought, is the Ninth Wave. This second side, the one that Kate struggled mightily to decipher and record, the one that delayed the albums release, was the one that could live outside of its time and is the more rewarding listen. Culminating thoroughly all the influence her Irish folk music roots, Pre-Raphaelite intonations, and Romantic lyricism into one flowing, personal thought was the true achievement found on the album. Taking lyrical clues from Alfred Tennyson’s poem “Idylls of the King: The Coming of Arthur” (Wave after wave, each mightier than the last,
Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep, And full of voices, slowly rose and plunged
Roaring, and all the wave was in a flame), and emotional cues both dark or hopeful from the harrowing lost at sea novel “The Cruel Sea” plus stylistic visual influences from Sir John Everett Millais “Ophelia” and her owned warped, modern satirist version of it “The Hogsmill Ophelia”, all together aiming to create a suite that played more like a grand story or film than a simple sonic jaunt.

Sir John Everett Milllais’s “Ophelia”

Kate’s “The Hogsmill Ophelia”

This is something you can hear her relate a bit about, in plain voice, throughout this illuminating interview:

Creating a story of a woman lost at sea, clinging to her life, and all that travails the story begins. It starts with knowing that falling asleep could lead to the protagonists certain death. “And Dream of Sheep” a spare piano and mandolin ballad, starts it all off with a treatise on clinging to life. Drawing you in to the plight of her lot now, she sets the scene for what’s coming. Interspersed with yearnings are all these sonic memories, sampled carrion birds, urgent telephone calls, and Uilleann pipe signaling her predicament. As you go in deeper, that’s when you realize her true predicament…”Under Ice”. The strings that sounded so strident before, now sound like cold daggers. The protagonist might be skating but its all a dream, under that ice. When she tries to pull herself from the ice, somehow it “wakens the witch”.

This is where the story shifts to survival. The song itself “Waking the Witch” which features chopped-up vocals in both delivery and phrasing matching the tracks ending helicopter sounds (graciously provided by Pink Floyd from The Wall), kicks of a menacing sonic mix of fantasy, realism, and folklore. Kate (and her family some of who were sampled) cycle through characters via pitch altering effects, each one seeming to take different phrases from different eras.

The song which starts with a slyly subversive pastoral soundscape, one actually relating end of life recollections streaming back at you before the final curtain call. In between struggling to live and having one foot in the grave, the voices and sonic go back and forth between focus and submission. When the song lulls you into a certain feeling, at the 1:13 minute something else is startling signaled. More hallucination than dream, a terrifying vision of the old witch trials presents itself. Here the protagonist hears the antagonist demand that she state whether she’s a witch, only witches float you see, and in real life although she’s fighting desperately to gasps one more breath of life, all these visions of the past are haunting, threatening to drag her down. Here the subsonic bass strums of Youth serving as this thick wall where church bells, pastoral lyrics, and whale sound all make their weight felt (through sound or meaning) and prevent her rescue.
As the protagonist, feels a numbness set in, and death start its ascent in “Watching You Without Me”, the melismatic quasi-Occidental, strangely swaying elegiac dance song of the suite intoning the profound sadness of not being able to say goodbye to someone you love, if and when your time on this good earth is up. Pay attention to some of the chopped up vocals (mimicking morse code) introduced near the end, as the protagonist seeks to find one more reason to hope, and dream, so does one final successful push to live.

“The Jig of Life” by far is the best track of the album. Mixing the future, her present, and the past in one unyielding, vibrant plea for life is just jaw-dropping like nothing else. Combining Paddy Bush’s and the Bothy Band’s Gaelic jig (itself taking cues from Alan Stivell’s groundbreaking work) with more progressive pop style serves the track more than anything. Using her voice as this cypher for keeping those two competing ideas together, triggers the idea of contemplation. Here she is, this young singer who has this memories of a past that modernity dictates belongs there, then she assumes responsibility for making it live, and does so by taking ownership of it. 
As she starts to present its memory of it, all pristine, robust, and thoroughly traditional, and puts it off in her memory around the 3:13 minute mark, something more important is presented, a communal spirit to share her memories. As John, her brother, raps poetic and she joins in with her future pop to the traditional sound of this past, she’s awoken to the idea that you’re never truly an island to yourself and the songs finishes off on a uplifting note that no matter what happens she won’t give up and remain there. If there’s light at the end of the tunnel, its because there is the world waiting for you. 
A much better storyteller than I, for some 20-odd minutes you’ll understand how timeless of a storyteller Kate was in this brief amount of time. Surely, you want to stick around to hear why this story ends with the morning fog?

Listen to Hounds of Love at Grooveshark.