Kate Bush’s masterpiece Hounds of Love is an enduring classic, a record divided seamlessly into two sections that is beguiling in its storytelling and rich sonic tapestry.
|Artist: Kate Bush
Album Title: Hounds of Love
Genre: Art Rock / Art Pop
Kate Bush was not the first artist to tonally and thematically divide an album into two halves and she certainly wasn’t the last. However, I don’t know if anyone has ever done it more effectively than she did on Hounds of Love, which is one of the reasons this album is such an enduring classic.
The album is frontloaded with the singles. “Running up That Hill”, “Hounds of Love”, “The Big Sky” and “Cloudbusting” are some of Bush’s greatest hits and with good reason, and along with the slightly more esoteric “Mother Stands for Comfort” they comprise the extremely accessible and art-pop-y first half of the album. It’s followed by a seven-track musical narrative, titled The Ninth Wave, telling the tale of a shipwrecked woman floating on (and under) water. The narrator goes in and out of consciousness, in and out of dreams and reality, nightmares and reveries, before being rescued in the final song. It’s one of the most bizarre and experimental pieces in modern popular music, at once managing to be touchingly affecting, hauntingly eerie and downright frightening all at the same time.
I read somewhere once that hearing completely new sounds whilst asleep will wake you up immediately. The only experience I’ve had close to that was whilst listening to The Ninth Wave. I’d just bought the CD of Hounds of Love and had uploaded it to my media player, then that same night I fell asleep with all of my music playing on my laptop. In the middle of the night as I was in the deepest REM sleep (and I’m a goddamn heavy sleeper) I heard a voice whisper ‘Wake Up!’, and my eyes snapped wide open. There I was, stuck in a semi-sleep paralysis listening to “Waking the Witch” for the first time ever at 3 in the morning, and I can think of no better way to first experience what might be the most terrifying song in pop music.
The track is almost microcosmic for the rest of the album, heavily utilising samples and pre-recorded voice snippets. In some ways Kate’s lead vocals take a back seat to all the other vocal details going on in the background, which is a strange subversion unique to this record. In this song Kate plays the eponymous witch and yet only seems to get a few lines to sing. The rest is the demonic sounds of the townsfolk and figures of authority that are persecuting her, as well as pre-recorded clips of various gents saying ‘Wake up!’ and a vocal chorus of ‘Spiritus Sanctus in nomine’. Hounds of Love is in some ways a collage of sonic details that prefigures plunderphonics, and she chose well which clips to use and when to further the tone, atmosphere or message of each individual track. I love the submarine sounds on “Under Ice” and the warning cries at the beginning of “Hounds of Love” to name just two.
The feverish madness and cold weakness of The Ninth Wave evaporates on the last track, ‘The Morning Fog’. The fog lifts as a new day dawns and her rescue ship steers her over calm seas towards port, her ruminations and longings geared towards her estranged family. It’s a delicate and warm track that acts as an antidote to a lot of the frosty experimentation that goes before it. It’s also a reminder that Bush’s music can pull you in all different directions. ‘Running up that Hill’ to me has always been heart-breaking in its profound empathy and harrowing in its helpless misery, yet also driven and furious. ‘Hounds of Love’ to me is one of the best songs ever, a huge anthem devoted to the fear of falling in love. The rejection of basic social norms and ideas of goodness and courage is professed triumphantly and it makes for a beguiling pop anthem. The songs devoted to family are touching and the songs devoted to nature are mysterious and eerie. It’s this diversity and the idea that Kate’s abstraction hasn’t quite been understood yet that keeps people returning, not to mention the completely unique and affecting song writing. One for the ages.