Album of the Week, May 12: Hounds of Love by Kate Bush

Kate-Bush-Hounds-of-LoveKate Bush got an early start on her musical career. By the age of 15, she had written a number of songs and landed a deal with EMI thanks to the help of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. Given her youth, the label took its time, releasing her first album in 1978 when she was 19. The Kick Inside was a stunning debut, featuring the huge U.K. hit Wuthering Heights and a number of songs Bush had written over the preceding four years. Over the next three-and-a-half years she released three more albums and an EP, growing in maturity and musical diversity as she became increasingly determined to take control of her own career. Taking a break of over two years, she actually announced the impending release of her fifth album in a “where is she now” interview. The result was well worth waiting for.

Title Hounds of Love
Act Kate Bush
Label EMI Release Date 9/16/1985
Producer Kate Bush
U.S. Chart  33 U.K. Chart  1
Tracks
[US Hot 100]
  1. Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) [#30]
  2. Hounds of Love
  3. The Big Sky
  4. Mother Stands For Comfort
  5. Cloudbusting
  6. And Dream of Sheep
  7. Under Ice
  8. Waking the Witch
  9. Watching You Without Me
  10. Jig of Life
  11. Hello Earth
  12. The Morning Fog

Bush had been producing or co-producing her discs since her second release, but Hounds of Love saw her take full creative control, including recording the album at her new home studio. Building complex soundscapes based on her Fairlight work and incomparable vocals, she crafted a two-piece statement of true artistic strength and beauty. The album took off from its predecessor, The Dreaming‘s complex themes and rich textures. Bush returned to a stronger pop sensibility at the same time, somehow merging her visions — both unearthly and deeply natural — with a great musical sense that created a challenging but ultimately listenable masterpiece.

The album is split into two movements, conveniently divided by the sides of the original vinyl release. The first five songs are Hounds of Love, a look at love in its various aspects. Four of them were released as singles in the U.K., all Top 40 hits there. It also included her only U.S. Top 40 single, the lead off track. Running Up That Hill is one of her finest songs and gets things started with a bang. A love song about the mortality of one’s beloved, it is passionate, desperate, and optimistic all at once. It also features an amazing vocal and a musical setting that shows a talented artist at the peak of her powers.

The title track is up next; it’s manages to be scary and sensual at the same time, reflecting the fear that can accompany giving in to passion. The image of being hunted by the Hounds of Love is magnificent, and calls up visions of Celtic myths. The song also features a nice sample (something Bush deftly mixes into many tracks) with an opening line from the film Night of the Demon that sets just the right tone.

The Big Sky continues the natural imagery, but moves to much more peaceful setting. It’s a reflection on the innocence of youth and a love of simple pleasures. This eases nicely into the quietly beautiful Mother Stands For Comfort, a straightforward song of parental love. Being a Bush track, however, it reflects that love through a lens of difficult days, capturing the strength and depth of ideal maternal love. Side one ends with another powerful track, the lovely Cloudbusting. Based loosely on the real-life relationship between psychologist Wilhelm Reich and his son Peter, it’s another testament to family love, this time reflecting on the fallibility of the parent. The string arrangement is appropriately dramatic, and Bush’s whisper-to-a-shout vocals capture the story beautifully.

Side two is entitled The Ninth Wave. Inspired by a painting of the same name by Ivan Aivazovsky, Bush describes it 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.” These seven tracks are much more complex and experimental, fitting together into a marvelously organic whole.

And Dream of Sheep starts off the suite with a light shining on the person in the water, drawing the parallel between dreaming and drowning. It’s delicate and chiming, a great opening as things get complicated. Under Ice features one of Bush’s spookiest vocals, a deep, dark growl. Her singing is chased by a wonderful string arrangement, and the sounds of ice cracking provide the scary backdrop. It ends with a horrified “It’s me!” as the narrator realizes that the peril she senses is her own.

Waking the Witch is a magnificent nightmare song. Featuring a sample of helicopter noise (from Pink Floyd’s The Wall, no less), it places the singer in a dream trial, facing up to the decisions she has made. The imagery is jumbled and jagged, with ideas thrown about as a dark voice demands her confession and contrition. That voice is a treated vocal from Bush herself, adding to the haunting nature of the song. As befits a sequence about nearly drowning, things go quiet for the next track. Hauntingly beautiful, Watching You Without Me pictures the singer’s lover moving through life after she has become but a ghost. It’s one of Bush’s most moving lyrics and her singing is flawless.

Jig of Life is an aptly named return to action. With a wonderful jig played on a variety of traditional Celtic instruments as its underpinning, it has our narrator speaking to herself from years in the future. The old woman pleads with her younger self “let me live, girl,” demanding that she not give in. It’s a complex setup that Bush assembles deftly, providing the impetus for the singer to hold on. Hello Earth is the strongest natural image of a very naturalistic album. A celebration of Earth as mother and home, it finds the fading singer floating above the planet — accompanied by well-chosen space mission samples — pondering her possible return or demise. A powerful choir (a traditional Georgian piece Bush encountered on the remake of Nosferatu and rebuilt with English singers) backs her vocals at key moments, lending an appropriately ominous air to things. The suite ends with the hopeful, joyous The Morning Fog, as the water that has held her down dissolves into something light and welcoming. It’s a perfect wrap-up to a potent odyssey.

Hounds of Love is an amazing work by a very talented artist. It was also, remarkably, her most commercially successful album on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s a powerful journey in song and a strong personal statement.

FURTHER LISTENING: After her busy early years, Bush has hardly been a prolific artist. Since 1985 she has only released four albums of original material. Every one of her nine albums has something interesting to offer, and three others are particularly strong. The Kick Inside is a powerful debut with many great songs if, understandably, not as complex or fully realized as later releases. The Dreaming is where Bush really comes into her own in terms of control, but suffers a bit from unrealized ambition. The Sensual World is a delightful, if delayed, follow-up to Hounds of Love, and nearly as good if not quite as cohesive. Sadly, Kate Bush has only two very disparate anthologies. The Whole Story is a nice compilation released right after Hounds, showcasing most of her singles but missing anything from later albums. This Woman’s Work is a daunting box set that includes her first six albums and two discs of B-sides, singles, and rarities — great for completists.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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