Rewind: Unleashing Kate Bush's 'Hounds Of Love'

For me, Hounds Of Love was the introductory key turn into the beautiful and artful mind of Kate Bush. It was akin to stepping through the wardrobe into snowy Narnia, getting swept into a cyclone to be dropped into a technicolor world, it was as if I'd entered into some foreign fairy tale land where I didn't know if I belonged or not, but curiosity was already piqued, guard already down, and...wait a minute, what was that rustling in trees over there? 

Hounds Of Love provided little room to turn back ---I had to go forward.

I had become acquainted with Ms. Bush from a visual standpoint prior to this moment back when I was in high school, and at the time I had thought I was hallucinating. The scene was set as this: I was laid up with flu, lying on the couch, doped up on all kinds of liquid drugs, slipping in and out of consciousness trying to watch a block of videos on VH1 Classic. As this was before YouTube, before a time where music videos would be at your beck and call, music was even more of a serendipitous occurrence, and when I saw this woman, glowing, pirouetting around in a flowing white dress, flaying her arms, singing shrill about the literary ghosts of Cathy and Heathcliff, I felt as if I had entered another dimension of sight and sound. It was The Twilight Zone, not Alka-Seltzer Plus, and it was weird and fascinating, forever changing the way I would digest and experience music.

(...and would you believe, I drifted into a medicinal sleep before I could catch the name of who this prancing siren was? What a big fail, Jen, what a big fail...)

Thereafter, the image of witnessing "Wuthering Heights" that day hovered in my conscious, incubating until time was right for me to able to appreciate it, and that didn't happen until Hounds Of Love came my way, allowing me to put two and two together.

As Hounds Of Love is the easiest of Kate Bush albums to get into, it's still not an album to take lightly. Kate is one of those artists that's difficult to peg or describe in so few words. Often notorious for throwing the rule book over her shoulder and threading her material with odd art pop references, Kate's music takes "effort" to get through. It's experimental, expansive, with crags and ranges, so wide in scale that you can wander and get lost in them. Her voice is another kind of animal, oblong in its octave range and capable of going from whispers to screams. Yet there's another side to Kate's music because as multifaceted as it is, she has somehow found a comfortable medium of being not just innovative, but accessible as well.

Hounds Of Love follows this aesthetic, closer than any of her albums that came before or after. It's distinctive and dynamic, encompassing the vastness of her style, but it's still approachable, still pointing due North towards an infectious hook or a memorable melody. As much as Hounds Of Love's predecessors like the exotic homey thrill of 1980's Never For Ever and the uncompromising weirdness of 1982's The Dreaming were daring feats, they proved to be distancing collections, especially The Dreaming which is so opaque its difficult to chew and swallow even for the most patient of listeners.

Hounds Of Love isn't as tedious or manic, it opens the window and airs out the cluttered attic of The Dreaming so to speak, letting in the breeze and the dappled light, being poetic instead of assertive. An all-over  'weather-y' vibe occurs on it, a meteorological dream that paints in milky blues, frosted whites, dusty purples and olive greens as it flows into rivers, freezes into icicles, rolls on fog, and races through dewy foliage.

Not shocked I was to learn that the album was created around the open English countryside, inside a spacious barn that Kate had renovated into a studio. This an ideal setting for an artist to rejuvenate the way they approach their craft. The change of scenery away from confiding recording studio gave Kate more time and space to foster new ideas and techniques, and she eased into the project at a slower pace, beginning the project in 1983, and tinkering at a tortoise pace till its release in 1985 --- this a first for Kate who had often released albums within a year's time, this at the behest of her recording label EMI.

Though comprised at the height of the 1980s during the reigns of MTV and Madonna, Hounds Of Love side-steps the mechanical, electric dance-heavy material the decade is known for. Kate's trusted Fairlight and the obvious drum programming are in the mix to give it that sleek 1980s feel, but they're about as modern mechanical as she gets. The album is more concerned with letting you wonder what instrument, what vocal technique, what inanimate object is making those sounds you're hearing, and surprises are to be had (Are those bag pipes? Is Kate howling like a hound dog?). Its sonic palette dips in and out of progressive rock, punchy pop, and contemplative ballads, at times Kate wears her Irish heritage on her sleeve as Celtic stylings are sprinkled throughout, introducing listeners to all kinds of rustic and traditional instruments and rhythms.

Conceptual the album is not just in its environmental imagery, but by it's structure as it's divided into two sections: 'Hounds Of Love' and 'The Ninth Wave', and like sisters those sections are, relative in some aspects, but divergent in others, fusing together to create its own unique weather pattern.

Hounds Of Love

"Running Up That Hill (Deal With God)" opens the album up with expansive and epic flair, beginning as if you're gliding across a vast calm ocean, breaking through the fog, destination unknown. Flourished with warm synthesizers and syncopated, galloping percussion, its the focal piece of the album, lending awareness that there's more around the corner. I love the mysterious, striking sound it has, and how it swoops up mid-song into this sonic fervor, Kate's voice going from steady to frantic as an electric guitar squeals.

As with most Kate Bush songs there are compelling turns of phrase, and "Running Up That Hill" possesses some of my favorite word plays from her catalog, from the simple and effective: "there's thunder in our hearts" to the relatable longing of the chorus: "If I only could / I’d make a deal with God / and I’d get him to swap our places / I’d be running up that road / running up that hill / with no problems". Such words draw out the subject matter, where Kate appears to want to trade bodies with her lover to experience the full extent of their relationship. Her desire to shape-shift, and 'become' other persons or inanimate objects has often been a consistent theme in her material, not just on this album alone. Kate has never outright claimed to be a feminist, but songs like "Running Up That Hill" have shown her to be well aware of gender roles, and the part that she plays in the world as a woman.

Admitting cowardice towards the pursuit of love is a common topic for a love song, but Kate's take fully exposes the internal struggles we have as humans in the throes of such lustful pursuit. If I was ever to admit, "Hounds Of Love" is my favorite Kate Bush song --- ever. I just love the frenzied, playful pace it has; love that it opens with a line from the 1957 British horror flick, Night Of The Demon ("It's in the trees! It's coming!") as it's so random, but so effective; love how Bush imitates the howling of dogs, once again swapping places to experience the opposite end; love how the strings, especially the cellos, add density and color to the track.

The percussion in this stabs with a dagger-like sharpness that is 1980s to a tee, but the effect isn't just for garnish, you can actually visualize Kate in a 'fox and hound' pursuit with her intended paramour nipping at her heels. The music video plays into the same kinetic wildness of the track and its theme, and its fun to view Kate diving into the mangy passion of romance, darting from one setting to the next.

"The Big Sky" is also thunderous and freewheeling, announcing it's arrival with Kate turning the volume up on her vocals, imitating a childlike eagerness as she stands looking up, wowed by the expanse, blueness, and possibility of the sky above. It's a song that makes you want to think and dance, with its persistent hand claps and Kate's whoops of delight as she flips the bird to her critics who "never understood her" and who "never really tried". So gosh darn happy it is, filled with reckless abandon and jovial wonder, to points where you'll find yourself clapping and stamping your feet along with Kate. I like the way Graeme Thomson described it in Under The Ivy: The Life & Music of Kate Bush, calling "The Big Sky" an "almost perfect pop song" that is the "aural equivalent of a big, bright crayon drawing".

To soften the blows of percussive assaults and Irish-styled jig work, "Mother Stands For Comfort" and "Cloudbusting" enter. The former at first reads like a love letter toward Bush's own mother, but a second listen you can hear it's not the usual heartfelt ode one would think to pen for their mother, as it's tone is darker, cerebral, not so much as a gush, but a real character examination on mother's and their instilled forgiveness towards their children. A wonderful oddity it is as the beautiful lyricals are interrupted by a warbled bass line, crashing glass, whistling synth work, and Kate's cries that have an infantile squeal about them, as if Kate reverts back to be being a child, and needs mother's care to right all of her burdens.

"Cloudbusting" puts Kate's storytelling abilities in the spotlight to their greatest effect. I've always said Kate Bush, like Joni Mitchell, is a Mother Goose of the Pop world, as a lot of her songs feel literary, as if you're reading a novel or telling a fractured bedtime story filled with ghouls and ghosts. Her viewpoints have always been unique, as she's previously told stories from the perspectives of a haunted house ("Get Out Of My House"), inside of a mother's womb during a nuclear holocaust ("Breathing"), and as a Deborah Kerr's character in the iconic 1961 British Gothic horror flick, The Innocents ("The Infant Kiss"). For "Cloudbusting", only Kate Bush would think to pen a song about Austrian-American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Wilhelm Reich and his attraction to the 'primordial cosmic energy' called "Orgone" and conduct yet another gender swap, where she places herself as the voice of Reich's son Peter who remembers his father "every time it rains". If the song wasn't detailed enough about Reich's pursuit to invent his 'cloudbuster' machine, the cinematic video covers the song line-by-line, with actor Donald Sutherland playing Reich and Kate portraying the mop haired and overall clad Peter, and to watch them try to outsmart government agents is fun to view.

The Ninth Wave

Playing like a suite of interconnected story-lines, 'The Ninth Wave' portion has little to do with the 'Hounds Of Love' section, but each facet of it is integral to the album's journey. The section takes it's title from the Lord Alfred Tennyson poem, "The Coming of Arthur", quoted by Kate on the sleeve of Hounds Of Love:
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.
The famous 1850 painting by Russian Armenian marine painter Ivan Aivazovsky also takes it's name from the Tennyson poem, and it shows a group of people stranded at sea, using wreckage of their destroyed vessel to keep them afloat and alive, as they come out of the dark brew of the storm into the break of golden sunlight. Combined, these source points play into Hounds Of Love's elemental themes with heavy emphasis on the dangerous beauty of water. The simplistic plot-line of 'The Ninth Wave' tells the story of a woman who has her life, even her past lives, flash before her eyes as she begins to drown in icy waters, awaiting rescue. Kate has described 'The Ninth Wave' portion in a few interviews, recalling dreams about water and a fascination with British painter Sir John Everett Millais' portrait of Hamlet's Ophelia. She has even performed the whole segment during her Before The Dawn showcase last year to much thrill, but with all these clues and elements, it's still up to the listener's interpretation to uncover what the 'message' of it actually is.

And here is where my analytical-loving heart goes pitter-patter...

Crossing the threshold into the second half, we are introduced with the sparse civility of "And Dream Of Sheep". Focused on Kate and her piano it's a recall of her past material where it was intimate and precociously erotic, but a different kind of maturity swirls around this waltz, as Kate's voice is clear, confident, operatic as she sings: "little light, shining, little light will guide them to me". A little drowsy the song is as Kate's character recounts times in her life, slipping deeper and deeper into a warm, dream state, knocking on death's door as she submerges deeper into the water.

Jagged strings on the wintry "Under The Ice" prod us to now realize we've entered a nightmare, as the tension builds and builds, the snow and sleet pelting down, trapping the woman beneath the ice for good. From research, the persistent drags of strings are supposed to be reminiscent of a skater going across the ice, going faster and faster, so fast that they cannot hear the cries from the body that is below the ice screaming: "It's meeeeeee!"

"Waking The Witch" has our character slipping in and out of consciousness, suffering from hypothermia as various voices dip in and out telling her to "wake up". Still chained to her dire state, the song surges into a skittish, scare ride, where a demonic voice (obviously Kate's voice distorted) booms with devilish glee. At this point, things get a little overzealous, a little too aware of its ability to shock, but its a startling plot-twist that really jars you out of your skin, especially as the voices keep building and you're assuming our character has gone down into the licking fires of hell. As our character continues to slip in and out, she experiences her past life as a woman accused of witchery during the infamous Salem Witch Trials, hearing the cries of "guilty! guilty!" swirling around her.

We are not in The Crucible anymore once the overcast lullaby "Watching You Without Me" drifts in on calliope-esque chimes and howling winds, the lyricals depicting our character's spirit wandering around her home and viewing her loved ones "watching the clock" waiting for her to return home. An abrupt jolt of strings and foot stomps awakens the slumber as "Jig Of Life" bounds in awakening the senses. It's Celtic character is an acquired taste (as is Kate Bush's catalog as a whole), and does borderline on being a little kitschy at times, but somehow I feel a real kinship to this song, even though I'm about as Irish as Lucky Charms. The Irish lineage that does race through my veins are but mere branches on my family tree to me, yet when that fiddle kicks into high-gear and those stomps echo and rattle, it's a transcendent moment that touches those blood cells, and awakens them. Odd, but it is what it is.

Climbing down from that is the profoundly moving, "Hello Earth", which is a little overdrawn in my opinion, and after having whiplash from "Waking The Witch" and "Jig Of Life", I'm quite exhausted at this point, so I sometimes skip it, even though I can't deny the beauty that resides in its swathe of sonic layering as the character soaks in and embraces all that Mother Earth has created. Closing out, "The Morning Fog" has our character rescued and rejuvenated, renewed in love and in life, as she witnesses the dawn of light and name-checks her family, seeing the balmy fog lift, the grey clouds blown away as the frigid winter dissipates and the nurturing of spring begins. Kate jovially singing, "Dum dum deeadumdoo" over and over, might sound a bit juvenile, but to me it's a lush and happy end after experiencing such a turbulent and provocative journey prior, that twittering along with the birds and the bees seems fitting.

Many albums have changed me with one listen, even a brief look at "Wuthering Heights" gave me the 'kick inside', altering me, but Hounds Of Love is on the opposite pole as it's intense, fragile beauty, latticed rhythmic patterns, and ornate prose, lent a different type of digestion, one that has me peeling back layer by layer still to this day, infatuated with every new discovery.

It's a little odd that Hounds Of Love is Kate Bush's most accessible record, even when the album's themes of human life and nature's transmutations are anything but simple. The achievement of this is where Hounds Of Love becomes Kate's signature collection, a career high-point that after years of precocious piano pop that dabbled in fairy tales, mysticism, and erotica, she is stripped of that manic pixie trope, of being your "quirky" girlfriend. Far from the so-called disposable pop of her femme peers she became. For its range of topics and motifs, it had ever intention to wander aimless, or be so full of itself that it couldn't see past it's own nose, but Hounds Of Love finds a balance where it comes together in its performance and its purpose, it's feminine and masculine, aware of imagination and reality, and the blurring of such lines.

30 years later and onward, Hounds Of Love is a landmark statement piece for pop music.
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