Kate Bush - Hounds Of Love - Review
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critics' view

When Kate Bush debuted in early 1978 with “Wuthering Heights,” arguably pop’s most uncanny ballad, she arrived as England’s first and perhaps only out-of-the-box pop genius. Several years earlier, a publicist and Bush family friend gave Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour a demo of over 50 songs recorded when she was only 15. Impressed, Gilmour bankrolled Cockney Rebel arranger Andrew Powell to produce three tunes, one of which, “The Man with the Child in His Eyes,” would become her second surrealist smash. EMI signed her at 16 so no other label would snag her, then kept her under wraps. By the time she released The Kick Inside at 19, Bush’s songwriting had already achieved a sophistication reserved for Bacharach-level vets, while her keening soprano, literary references, and wide-eyed silent-film-star presentation positioned her firmly left-of-center—not the usual place for a prodigious pianist singing symphonic soft rock.

On this and ‘78’s follow-up Lionheart, Bush sang fearlessly of religion, incest, murder, homosexuality, and much more. “There’s room for a life in your womb, woman,” she crooned with the earnestness of a Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival radical, and did so while much of Europe was watching. She exuded brains and beauty and suffused both with an unyielding otherness that made her an LGBT icon and spiked her international cult with aliens of every stripe, from African-American bohos like Prince and OutKast to Johnny Rotten. Despite her overnight success, she would never conform to conventional stardom: Instead, she reversed the usual rock ‘n’ roll process where once-provocative artists cave to commercial pressure and shake off the quirks that initially made them distinct: Maturity would only make Bush more daring. But by 1985, the year of Hounds of Love, she needed to reaffirm her appeal. Thanks to MTV, UK pop had exploded in worldwide popularity since The Dreaming, her self-produced record that EMI nearly returned for lacking potential singles; its only hit, “Sat in Your Lap,” was 15 months old by the time the album finally reached stores in 1982. Raging and experimental, it was akin to Public Image Ltd. and Siouxsie and the Banshees, not early Sheena Easton, and sold far less than its predecessors. So Bush and her romantic partner/bassist Del Palmer abandoned London for a 17th-century farmhouse, spent the summer gardening, and built a 48-track studio in her family barn where she doubled down on the Fairlight CMI, the pioneering digital sampling synthesizer that ruled The Dreaming.

The Fairlight was a notoriously expensive and complex computer; the few who could afford and figure out how to play one during their ‘80s heyday were either established stars like Peter Gabriel and Stevie Wonder who were invested in cutting-edge sounds, or similarly brainy upstarts who funded their techno-pop through production. One such boffin, Landscape’s Richard James Burgess, helped program Bush’s Fairlight on the very first album to feature it, 1980’s Never for Ever, which was also the first UK chart-topping album by a British female solo artist, one that marked a transition between the symphonic sweep of Bush’s earliest albums and what followed. On Never for Ever, the instrument was mostly a means to wrangle the sound effects that heighten her melodrama. By Hounds of Love, she’d mastered it as a musical instrument unto itself.

What set Bush apart from Fairlight wizards like Thomas Dolby, who made a point of their geekdom, was that she also drew deeply from the world music that captivated her older brother Paddy Bush. His balalaika, didgeridoo, and other centuries-old folk instruments tempered her Fairlight’s inherent futurism. She didn’t employ it to create walloping beats like the Art of Noise, or use it to spew out orchestral blasts like the Pet Shop Boys. She used the Fairlight the way Brian Wilson used cut-up tape and how today’s avant-garde exploit Pro-Tools—to create perfectly controlled cacophony. Take, for example, Hounds of Love’s lead cut, “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God).” The song was Bush’s first U.S. hit, and it brought to the mainstream gender-equality issues that female-led post-punk acts like Au Pairs had been thrashing out for years in the underground. She delivers the bulk of it tenderly like a love song, but also poses pointed questions: “Is there so much hate for the ones we love?/Tell me, we both matter, don’t we?” But as the track climaxes, weaving in and out of perception is the Fairlight-manipulated sound of Bush screaming, as if trying to escape her body, sex, and consciousness. “If I only could, I’d be running up that hill,” she sings once again at the end, but this time her soprano is joined by a down-pitched rendering of her own voice, to suggest technology had made her trans-gender prayer come true. Armed with equally advanced machines and melodies, Bush now creatively trumped nearly every mid-’80s rocker; only Prince and a few others were in her league.

This was a striking achievement for a quintessentially femme star: Among her gender-bending UK generation, Bush had the highest chirp, the most flowing locks, and the tightest leotards; when she shed the latter for the fantasy segments of her “Babooshka” video, she transformed into a scintillating windblown warrior with disco levels of exposed flesh and shameless camp. Both “Breathing” and its video is set in a uterus; “In the Warm Room” exalts vaginas the same way Led Zeppelin sang about dicks.

Hounds of Love proved there were no compositional mountains Bush couldn’t climb. While the second side asserted her vanguard bent, the first side yielded four UK Top 40 hits. Neither synth-pop nor prog-rock, Hounds of Love nevertheless drew from both with double-platinum rewards on her home turf, and yielded her first U.S. hits, even without a tour. And its idiosyncrasies have only fueled Hounds’ lingering influence: Florence and the Machine cribs its Gothic angst. Anohni mirrors its animal divinity. St. Vincent draws from its sexual politics and sonic precision. Utah Saints sampled it and the Futureheads covered it, both with UK Top 10 results. Coldplay’s “Speed of Sound” goes so far as to paraphrase “Running”’s rhythm, chords, climax, and highland imagery. It’s the Sgt. Pepper of the digital age’s dawn; a milestone in penetratingly fanciful pop.

Bush’s talent was so undeniable that she could sneak into contemporary music’s center while curbing none of her eccentricities. The album’s second single “Cloudbusting” celebrates Wilhelm Reich, a brilliant Austrian psychoanalyst but crackpot American inventor. Full of details gleaned from his son Peter Reich’s A Book of Dreams, it’s specific to their teacher/pupil relationship, which is played out further in its video featuring Donald Sutherland. But “Cloudbusting” also deals with a much more universal situation: Children long to protect their parents, despite having no adult power to do so. Accordingly, Bush resorts to the one thing all children possess in abundance—imagination. “I just know that something good is gonna happen,” she sings, a string sextet sawing insistently as martial drums beat a battle cry that morphs from helplessness to victory, however imaginary. The son she portrays wills himself into thoughts nearly delusional as his dad’s, and the result is optimistic yet poignant, as he ultimately believes, “Just saying it could even make it happen.”

Imagination’s pull is the subtext to Bush’s entire oeuvre, but that theme dominates Hounds of Love, and not least in the title track. Whereas her piercing upper register once defined her output, here she’s roaring from her gut, then pulling back, and the song shifts between panic and empathy. “Hounds of Love” boasts the big gated ’80s drum blasts Bush discovered while singing background on Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers,” and yet its cello just as percussive: It builds to suggest both her pulse and the heartbeat of the captured fox she comforts and identifies with. She fears love: “It’s coming for me through the trees,” she wails. Yet she craves it, so desire and terror escalate in a breathless Hitchcockian climax.

On Hounds of Love, the singer who started directing her own videos at this point becomes total auteur, and takes such a firm grasp on every aspect of the recording process that she often replaces Del Palmer, her own lover, on bass. On “Mother Stands for Comfort,” an all-knowing maternal contrast to the delusional papa of “Cloudbusting,” she duets with German jazz bassist Eberhard Weber, who plays yielding mother to Bush’s wayward daughter. Her Fairlight clatters with the crash of broken dishes while her piano gently wanders, but Weber’s fretless bass maintains its compassion, even when Bush lets loose some freaky primal-scream scatting toward the end. Skies, clouds, hills, trees, lakes—along with everything else, Hounds of Love is also a heated paean to nature. On the cover, Bush reclines between two canines with a knowing familiarity that almost suggests cross-species congress. She honors the sensual world's benign blessings on “The Big Sky” even while Youth’s raucous bass suggests earthquakes. Bush references its elements with childlike awe: “That cloud looks like Ireland,” she squeals. “You’re here in my head like the sun coming out,” she sighs in “Cloudbusting,” and her stormy emotions are reflected by the music’s turbulence. But nature’s destruction can also inspire us to seek solace in spirituality, and that’s what happens on Side Two’s singular suite, “The Ninth Wave.”

Bush plays a sailor who finds herself shipwrecked and alone. She slips into a hypothermia-induced limbo between wakefulness and sleep (“And Dream of Sheep”), where nightmares, memories and visions distort her consciousness to the point where she cannot distinguish between reality and illusion. Is she skating, or trapped “Under Ice”? During her hallucinations, she sees herself in a prior life as a necromancer on trial; instead of freezing, she visualizes herself burning (“Waking the Witch”). Her spirit leaves her body and visits her beloved (“Watching You Without Me”). Then her future self confronts her present being and begs her to stay alive (“Jig of Life”). A rescue team reaches her just as her life force drifts heavenward (“Hello Earth”), but in the concluding track, “The Morning Fog,” flesh and spirit reunite, and she vows to tell her family how much she loves them. As her sailor drifts in and out of consciousness, Bush floats between abstract composition and precise songcraft. Her character’s nebulous condition gives her melodies permission to unmoor from pop’s constrictions; her verses don’t necessarily return to catchy choruses, not until the relative normality of “The Morning Fog,” one of her sweetest songs. Instead, she’s free to exploit her Fairlight’s capacity for musique concrete. Spoken voices, Gregorian chant, Irish jigs, oceanic waves of digitized droning, and the culminating twittering of birds all collide in Bush’s synth-folk symphony. Like most of her lyrics, “The Ninth Wave” isn’t autobiographical, although its sink-or-swim scenario can be read as an extended metaphor for Hounds of Love’s protracted creation: Will she rise to deliver the masterstroke that guaranteed artistic autonomy for the rest of her long career and enabled her to live a happy home life with zero participation in the outside world for years on end, or will she drown under the weight of her colossal ambition?

By the time I became one of the few American journalists to have interviewed her in person in 1985, Bush had clinched her victory. She’d flown to New York to plug Hounds of Love, engaging in the kind of promotion she’d rarely do again. Because she thoroughly rejected the pop treadmill, the media had already begun to marginalize her as a space case, and have since painted her as a tragic, reclusive figure. Yet despite her mystical persona, she was disarmingly down-to-earth: That hammy public Kate was clearly this soft-spoken individual’s invention; an ever-changing role she played like Bowie in an era when even icons like Stevie Nicks and Donna Summer had a Lindsey Buckingham or a Giorgio Moroder calling many of the shots.

It was a response, perhaps, to the age-old quandary of commanding respect as a woman in an overwhelmingly masculine field. Bush's navigation of this minefield was as natural as it was ingenious: She became the most musically serious and yet outwardly whimsical star of her time. She held onto her bucolic childhood and sustained her family’s support, feeding the wonder that’s never left her. Her subsequent records couldn’t surpass Hounds of Love’s perfect marriage of technique and exploration, but never has she made a false one. She’s like the glissando of “Hello Earth” that rises up and plummets down almost simultaneously: Bush retained the strength to ride fame’s waves because she’s always known exactly what she was—simply, and quite complicatedly, herself.

Barry Walters
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