Kate Bush, HOUNDS OF LOVE

Hounds_of_love

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #22 – released September 16, 1985)

Track listing: Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) / Hounds of Love / The Big Sky / Mother Stands For Comfort / Cloudbusting / And Dream of Sheep / Under Ice / Waking The Witch / Watching You Without Me / Jig Of Life / Hello Earth / The Morning Fog

If The Dreaming established Kate Bush as a major visionary in pop music, Hounds of Love managed the neat trick of expanding her reach both artistically and commercially. It outsold the earlier album, topped the UK album charts and even scored her a top 40 single in the States (her only one to date). Simultaneously, while to the casual observer less angry and bonkers than the earlier album, sections of it are still out there and, on the whole, it’s a considerable undertaking for anyone diving into her catalog for the first time. Although I’ve often cited The Dreaming as my favorite Kate Bush album, I’ve come to cherish this follow-up just as much, even though there is far from an expected progression between the two records.

For all of its complexities, Hounds of Love is neatly divided into two halves (or “sides” in the pre-digital days). Side One contains five songs that frequently showcase Bush at her most approachable (all but one were singles), although none of them would move anyone to accuse her of selling out or calculatingly courting a mainstream audience. Opener “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” was that sole US Top 40 single; that it even peaked at #30 (and #3 in the U.K.) is still a little mind-blowing. It begins with an almost ambient wash of noise before drums and the song’s signature wonky synth riff emerge. The lyrics are at once easily comprehensible and stubbornly enigmatic: what exactly is this “deal with God” she’s making and what does she hope to accomplish by getting “Him to swap our places”? We can ponder this over and over while automatically singing along to the catchy (if also strangely dissonant) melody. You can give it a dozen spins and still not entirely wrap your head around its meaning and purpose, or even pick up on all the bizarre processed backing vocals in the margins. And yet, enough people listened, and listened again to make this Bush’s signature hit—a remixed version even cracked the top ten again in 2012 when the song was included in the ceremonies for the London Summer Olympics.

The title track follows with a bang (“It’s in the trees! It’s coming!!”), announcing a brisk uptempo number capturing that elusive, exhilarating rush of falling madly, head-over-heels in love, losing control and giving yourself over completely to it, not even caring how daft it sounds to replace your “do, do, do’s” with canine-mimicking “arf, arf, arf’s”. The regal, glorious chorus (“Take your shoes off / and throooooww them in the lake”) plays over fervent synth violins that only enhance the song’s overriding ecstasy. Bush retains that gleeful rush on the next song, “The Big Sky”. Sounding unexpectedly dainty on the opening triplets, she lets go of any demureness by the time she hits the first chorus, at which the song becomes an extended two-chord vamp that builds, and builds, and builds. All furiously strummed guitars, “diddley-da, diddley-da” nonsense backing vox, and an army of percussive handclaps, it goes out on a two minute plus, sped-up “Hey Jude”-like coda that is one of the most blissful, jubilant things you’ll ever hear—if you listen closely enough, you might even detect Madonna’s similarly elated “Ray of Light” thirteen years off in the future.

After all this joy, Bush takes a breather with the downcast “Mother Stands For Comfort” (the one non-single on Side One). It’s the track here that could most easily fit on The Dreaming, particularly on that album’s ballad-heavy second half. Like “Night of the Swallow” and “Houdini”, it’s essentially piano-and-voice, but that’s only one layer. Sudden crashing noises make up the percussion, another wonky synth riff mirrors the melodic vocal hook, and again, the margins are stuffed with all these odd little sounds, like Bush caterwauling along with an “Ah-oooo!”. Perhaps, not one her best-loved songs, but in the album’s sequence, it gives us time to cool down before Side One’s final track, “Cloudbusting”. A staccato string arrangement kicks it off, with Bush delivering lyrics about philosopher William Reich and his young son as the two attempt the rainmaking process that lends the song its title. A martial beat joins the strings on the first chorus and much like “The Big Sky”, the song just builds from there, adding on countermelodies, wordless chorales and subtle loud/soft dynamics—complex for pop song, but it’s all in service of a hook so indelible (“Ooooh, I just know that something good is going to happen!”) that it was sampled to great effect by Utah Saints seven years later for their rave hit “Something Good”.

If Hounds of Love’s first half is the closest Bush ever came to pop perfection, Side Two reveals how vast her ambitions were at this point. The album’s final seven tracks form a twenty-six minute suite called “The Ninth Wave”, the title of an 1850 work by Russian Armenian painter Ivan Aivazovsky which depicts people hanging on to a shipwreck at sea. Bush herself has described the suite as being “About a person who is alone in the water for the night. It’s about their past, present and future coming to keep them awake, to stop them drowning, to stop them going to sleep until the morning comes.” While the drowning aspect of the narrative is easily discernible, the whole thing nearly plays like a mini-opera, one oblique enough that most might require a lyric sheet to follow along.

A more effective way of approaching “The Ninth Wave” may be to consider its trajectory of emotions and sudden, significant tonal shifts. The suite begins rather sweetly with “And Dream Of Sheep”, a gentle lullaby harkening back to the relative simplicity of Bush’s earlier girl-and-a-piano tunes. It doesn’t last, for “Under Ice” is turn-on-a-dime sinister, snaking and accelerating just like the Jaws theme as its heroine descends into sleep/underwater. The next song, “Waking The Witch”, starts with an extensive, disorienting collage of pensive, echoing piano chords and various sampled voices speaking variations of the phrase, “Wake up!” (similar to the “Goodbyes” in the outro of The Dreaming’s “All The Love”). Then, everything goes haywire all at once: layers of Bush’s vocal seemingly cut up into a thousand million pieces as she sings nonsensical childlike verse underneath (“red, red roses / pinks and posies”), samples of cathedral bells and a courtroom of men crying “GUILTY!”, and what sounds like the Satanic Demon Creature of Your Worst Nightmares, among many other noises. Possibly the single most challenging track in Bush’s catalog, it defies categorization, unnerving and overwhelming the listener with its full-on attack and total dismissal of traditional pop song structure.

After a whirring helicopter and a male voice shouting, “Get out of the water!”, the song fades out and a markedly calmer soundscape surfaces. Gently bobbing like a buoy on the waves, “Watching You Without Me” comes as a sigh of relief with its seesawing beat, playful synths and basic, two chord progression—then, you notice the unintelligible backing vocals, and also the backward vocals. Just when the last track’s insanity has all but faded, Bush throws in a dash of that weird-as-fuck sliced-and-diced vocal from it, perhaps as a little reminder that this song is simply a segue. The fiddle that introduces and drives the next track is an unexpected shock to the senses (unlike the title track’s proclamation, you don’t at all see it coming). In a possible nod to her Irish mum’s heritage, “Jig of Life” reprises the traditional instruments last heard on The Dreaming’s “Night of the Swallow” at an equally joyous and menacing tempo. Midway through, there’s an actual minute-plus long jig breakdown as intense as anything the Pogues ever came up with, followed by a poetic reverie spoken by her older brother, John Carder Bush.

After “Jig of Life” hits its final resounding chord, Bush announces the expansive yet intimate “Hello Earth”, belting out its title and immediately sobering us up. This is the type of grand, epic orchestral ballad Bush had been writing since “Wuthering Heights”; as much as I adore that singular debut single, “Hello Earth” shows how far she had come in just seven years. If you listen closely enough, a few of the suite’s various threads reappear, such as the Irish instruments and the phrase “Get out of the water”. Still, the song resonates on an emotional level above all—as Bush sings of drowning and/or dying (“Go to sleep, little earth” is the song’s last spoken line), the arrangement both suitably haunts (that low, slow, moaning chorale taking over when the music suddenly drops out twice) and chills (those icy, lingering orchestral crescendos straight out of a horror film).

And then, just as “Hello Earth” dribbles to a close, “The Morning Fog” materializes at full volume via a loudly plucked harp. Blissful and uplifting, it is a song of rebirth with a fresh, vibrant pastoral arrangement. The preceding drama having ceased, Bush sounds wonderfully happy—she’s made it through a rough night and has emerged unscathed and renewed, reveling in the pleasure of just being alive. While “The Ninth Wave” bears the influence of side two of Abbey Road and any number of prog-rock suites that followed throughout the 1970s, it stands apart in one significant way: instead of placing great emphasis on recurring musical motifs and reprisals to tie all the disparate sections together, Bush seems to have crafted this as a journey of the mind, heart and soul. It may take ten or twenty listens (perhaps even more) to comprehend every last bit of her dense text, but the array of feelings it evokes is immediately apparent—you may not literally be there with her in the water, but if you give yourself over completely to her serenity, her madness, her melancholy and her jubilance, well, it’s enough to make you wish you could take your own shoes off and dive right in beside her.

Up next: A heavenly way to die.

“Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”:

“Hello Earth”:

Kate Bush, THE DREAMING

dreaming

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #19 – released September 13, 1982)

Track listing: Sat In Your Lap / There Goes A Tenner / Pull Out The Pin / Suspended In Gaffa / Leave It Open / The Dreaming / Night Of The Swallow / All The Love / Houdini / Get Out Of My House

A year after I fell in love with Abbey Road, Kate Bush released “The Rubberband Girl”, the playful lead single from her seventh album, The Red Shoes. One of her few songs to get any radio airplay at home, it moved me to check out of the library The Whole Story, her greatest hits album which documented her career through 1986. Like Abbey Road, it was another leading portal into an aesthetic I never knew existed: here was this eccentric, high-voiced British woman with cool, strange, imaginatively arranged songs about everything from an Emily Brontë novel (“Wuthering Heights”) to nuclear apocalypse (“Breathing”). Furthermore, most of these were huge hits in the UK (with “Running Up That Hill” her only top 40 in the US) and she recorded all of them before turning thirty.

The Whole Story thoroughly intrigued me by suggesting what brave new worlds pop music could contain: An account of a father and daughter dabbling in rainmaking (“Cloudbusting”)? A wife who cunningly plays with gender roles by seducing her husband incognito (“Babooshka”)? Well, why not? Bush was a true original, not to mention a true weirdo. Perhaps the song that I found most fascinating was “Sat In Your Lap”: After a barrage of pounding, possibly synthetic drums leading the charge, Bush chirps brief, herky-jerky observational lyrics before shifting to full-on cray-cray mode for the operatic, nearly shrieked chorus: “Some say that KNOWLEDGE IS something sat in your lap! / Some say that KNOWLEDGE IS something that you never have!” She goes on to declare, “I must admit, juuuust when I think I’m king,” in a voice so immense and overly theatrical you begin to wonder whether she’s serious; what sets Bush apart from any of her peers is that you never doubt her sincerity, even when she makes WTF statements such as, “I want to be a lawyer / I want to be a scholar / but I really can’t be bothered.” In alternate contexts, “Sat In Your Lap” is either a palette-cleanser or a room-clearer. It reached #11 on the UK singles chart in 1981 and its music video (below) has to be seen to be believed.

I did not check out its parent album, The Dreaming, until five years later, mostly because I was a bit intimidated at the prospect of an entire record of this stuff. Its title track also appears on The Whole Story, and it makes “Sat In Your Lap” seem like “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” in comparison: over a droning, clanging, sound-collage backdrop liberally laced with didgeridoo and sinister animal noises, Bush sings in a heavy Aussie accent about the plight of the Aborigines. So effective is the world she conjures up in “The Dreaming” that it would give even Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett nightmares (by the way, this was also a single, and it flopped). The Dreaming was Bush’s fourth album (at age 24!), and the first she produced herself. Later, she referred to it as her “I’ve gone mad album” and indeed, it seems noticeably more unhinged and excitable than her previous work, which was often fairly eccentric to begin with. However, by taking hold of the reins, Bush makes that Great Leap Forward with The Dreaming: confident, fearless, inventive and often insane, it negates any perceptions that Bush is a novelty or a precocious prodigy, correctly establishing her as an artist, an innovator and a force to be reckoned with.

“Sat In Your Lap” effectively opens The Dreaming but still barely hints at what is to come. “There Goes A Tenner” (another single that flopped) is somewhat more accessible, slightly mischievous fun. Inspired by classic film noirs (mentioning Humphrey Bogart and George Raft by name), it alternates Bush singing in a cockney accent over a daft, distinctly British oom-pah beat with dreamy interludes of her cooing in a lower voice, “Re-al-lit-eeee.” Dinky but catchy, odd but ending on a wistful note, it is, like practically everything else on The Dreaming, unclassifiable. That’s certainly an apt description for “Pull Out The Pin”, where Bush assumes the part of a Vietnam soldier. As with a majority of her compositions, her piano lays the foundation but up top and at the margins are a menagerie of sampled sounds: crickets, a whirring helicopter, even a guitar solo near the end that’s chewed up and spat out like a cubist painting. It a retains a pop song structure but gives Bush carte blanche to freak the fuck out, her repeated, exhaustive screams of “I LOVE LIFE!!!” providing the most immediate hook.

“Suspended In Gaffa” might be a novice’s best entry point into The Dreaming: over a bright and cheery waltz tempo that comes this close to resembling a merry-go-round on the verge of spinning out of control, Bush reiterates one of the album’s primary themes: she shouts a boisterous “I want it all!” in the bridge to the chorus, only to immediately, more softly concur, “We can’t have it all.” Shrouded in mystery (is “Gaffa” even a place or state of mind or is it a kind of constricting, tactile substance?) but disarmingly catchy, “Suspended In Gaffa” is the album’s best case for Bush as a Delightful Nutjob (to borrow a friend’s term). “Leave It Open”, however, is where things start to get really weird: it kicks off with a boom-clap stomp that could be an alternate universe version of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” before Bush’s heavily-treated vocal comes in and all bets are off. Featuring a call-and-response duet between high-pitched, possibly sped-up Kate and low, wobbly Kate, she also lets out a sinus-clearing wail before the full band kicks in and her subsequent warrior cries suggest she’s leading an army into battle. It’s as unclassifiable as “There Goes A Tenner” and it could not be more tonally different.

Here, the aforementioned title track is slightly longer than the single edit on The Whole Story, concluding with a fanfare of traditional Irish instruments (bagpipes, penny whistle and the like) that serves as a bridge to the remarkable “Night Of The Swallow”. A slow, stripped down piano ballad in its verses (certainly the album’s most introspective moments so far), it revs up the tempo in the choruses, which reprise the Irish fanfare, with Bush almost magically building up momentum and intensity until she exclaims, “Let me go!” as only she can. “All The Love”, the piano ballad that follows, is far more somber and possibly the album’s most normal and accessible song, although “normal” is a relative term when referencing a track with a minute-long outro full of sampled snippets of folks saying “goodbye”, “cheerio”, “take care”,etc; Still, it’s a direct but dreamy lament suffused with longing and resolve, anticipating Bush’s more mature later work. “Houdini” is a quintessential Bush composition about a famous figure and his tragic death; like the preceding two songs, it is also a slow piano ballad, but it keeps listeners on their toes as Bush’s vocal suddenly shifts to a thunderous, all-encompassing roar on the chorus, followed by a string quartet interlude and, at the end, an operatic chorale.

The Dreaming concludes with its angriest, most audacious track. On “Get Out of My House”, Bush distills the album’s various themes into a loud, swirling manifesto where she passionately defends herself against all threats to her well-being (they could be physical, mental or emotional, she’s not entirely specific). She exclaims, “This house is full of madness!”, which, given all that came before, is an understatement. But she triumphs, screaming the song’s title repeatedly until it becomes a mantra; Bush being Bush, she also inexplicably sings the bridge to the chorus in a funny voice that rather resembles a Frenchman catering to the Borscht Belt circuit and brays “HEE-HAW!” a few times towards the end as if she suddenly turned into a donkey. Like The Dreaming as a whole, “Get Out Of My House” is at once both gloriously empowering and an extreme, bat-shit-insane declaration of independence. It likely lost Bush some fans at the time, but I’m guessing it ended up endearing her to many more new and existing ones. I admired Bush before I ever heard The Dreaming, but once I did in full, she became (and unquestionably remains) one of my all-time favorite musical artists. We’ll be hearing from her again and soon.

Up next: we temporarily break with chronology, first to count down my favorite albums of 2014, and then to feature the oldest album I’ll be writing about in this project.

“Sat In Your Lap”:

“Suspended In Gaffa”:

Gimme It, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme

As a postscript to my Top 50 Tracks of the 1980s, here are my 25 favorite albums of the decade, accompanied by a gloriously deranged video for the first track from # 1.

1. Kate Bush, The Dreaming
2. XTC, Skylarking
3. The Go-Betweens, 16 Lovers Lane
4. Talking Heads, Remain In Light
5. The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead
6. Everything But The Girl, Idlewild
7. Kate Bush, Hounds of Love
8. The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing
9. XTC, English Settlement
10. Sam Phillips, The Indescribable Wow
11. Erasure, The Innocents
12. The Mekons, Rock N Roll
13. R.E.M., Life’s Rich Pageant
14. XTC, Oranges and Lemons
15. Pet Shop Boys, Introspective
16. Roxy Music, Avalon
17. Was (Not Was), What Up, Dog?
18. The Dukes of Stratosphear, Chips From The Chocolate Fireball
19. New Order, Substance
20. Madonna, Like A Prayer
21. The Go-Betweens, Tallulah
22. R.E.M., Murmur
23. Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes
24. George Michael, Faith
25. Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man

Top 50 Tracks of the 1980s: # 10-6

10. XTC, “Towers of London”
XTC might have been as big as The Police if Andy Partridge had wanted to be Sting. Of course, they were great because Partridge had no interest in being anyone but himself. Although not as well-known as “Dear God” or “Senses Working Overtime”, this single contains All Good Things About XTC: a proto-Britpop hook, a heavy (but not derivative) 1960s flavor, a heart-stopping, key-changing bridge and Partridge’s love-it-or-hate-it wail (I love it).

9. Kate Bush, “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”
Her only hit in the US–it reached # 30 and even now it’s astonishing it went that far. I don’t think I could capably describe this song to someone who hasn’t heard it, because it doesn’t sound like much else. Individual elements, such as that wonky, three-note synth riff or the understated, almost martial beat don’t seem like they’d ever go together in theory, so call Bush an alchemist and marvel that she created something this blindingly original (and so much more) before she turned 30.

8. Cristina, “Is That All There Is?”
Some days I believe this is the best cover version of all time. I mean, Peggy Lee’s original was warped to begin in, but this twisted new wave chanteuse (on the same record label as #18!) deliberately turns it into bratty high camp, rewriting the lyrics to say stuff like “he beat me black and blue AND I LOVED IT” in a voice dripping with sarcasm and spite. It’s a hoot worthy of The B-52’s if they were fronted by a punk Norma Desmond.

7. Talking Heads, “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)”
One day I’ll post a list of favorite album openers and this one from Remain In Light will be near the top. David Byrne’s abrupt “HAH!” kicks off nearly six minutes of a relentless groove that doesn’t build but arrives fully formed. What’s on top that groove, however, appears piece by piece (think of the band’s gradual entrance in the concert film Stop Making Sense a few years later) until you get a hypnotic, symphonic whole you wish would extend as far as a Fela Kuti number.

6. Erasure, “A Little Respect”
Speaking of great album openers… while “Chains of Love” was technically the bigger hit, this duo’s other best-known song (the first track on The Innocents) has permeated the culture more extensively (even driving the narrative of a Scrubs episode!) and why not: it transcends gimmickry, genre and era with that delicate but disarming melody and Andy Bell’s elastic, yearning, heartfelt vocal.

Tripping On The Water Like A Laughing Girl

I haven’t celebrated the holiday in any shape or form since the last time I had a Shamrock Shake, but Happy Saint Patrick’s Day anyway.