Day Thirty-Two [Belated]: Kate Bush – Hounds of Love

EMI ■ KAB1/EJ 24 0384 1

Released September 16, 1985
Produced by Kate Bush
Engineered by Del Palmer, Haydn Bendall, Brian Tench, Paul Hardiman, Nigel Walker, James Guthrie, Bill Somerville-Large
Mixed by Brian Tench
(“Hounds of Love” and “Mother Stands for Comfort” mixed by Julian Mendelsohn)

Hounds of Love (Side One): The Ninth Wave (Side Two):
  1. Running up That Hill (A Deal with God)
  2. Hounds of Love
  3. The Big Sky
  4. Mother Stands for Comfort
  5. Cloudbusting
  1. And Dream of Sheep
  2. Under Ice
  3. Waking the Witch
  4. Watching You Without Me
  5. Jig of Life
  6. Hello Earth
  7. The Morning Fog

With an opening note: Most reading this shortly after writing are already aware, but this entry was delayed (checking the posting dates and times will confirm this for anyone else). I apologize for the delay and can only do exactly that, really. I didn’t want to listen to this album or write about it while half asleep, as that would basically define the experience and render the whole point of doing either moot. It could have interesting effects, certainly, on my perception, but I can’t imagine many but the most esoteric (and vaguely pretentious) would actually aim for half-asleep listening to their work. Of course, esoteric isn’t really unfair in this case, but…

Some time ago, on my previous blog, I wrote about unusual voices and managed to bring up Leon Russell and The Blood Brothers, as well as some other artists who will appear on this blog at later stages. I asked for some other voices from others, attempting (ever-futilely) to start a conversation. I didn’t get any comments on that entry, but I did get a response from a friend elsewhere. It happened to coincide with enough other mentions of an artist to get me to shrug and keep an eye out. Part of me wants desperately to mention a completely irrelevant name just to obnoxiously subvert expectations about where this is going, but, no, it was Kate Bush. I was in the middle of my relatively constant visits to Hunky Dory in Durham, NC, and managed to run into a few of her albums there. During that time, I built up a backlog of new vinyl, to some extent, despite intending to use some of it for the blog at the time (successfully doing so a mighty once). I never really got around to the Kate Bush, despite throwing it under the needle a time or two, usually doing it more to push myself into not having unplayed vinyl than actually taking time out to listen.

And of course, that’s kind of the point here. I’m terrible with recommendations, and it’s best for me to find new things of my own accord–or, at least, to find semi-unexpected occurrences of recommendations, which is why some used vinyl at a place that was careful about what they sold made sense. But that doesn’t meant I’ll necessarily do anything further, even when I act on those recommendations somewhat whimsically. But now I haven’t got a choice, which I appreciate in this context. I had to stop, sit, and listen to this album, and really get a feel for it–at least, as much as I could in a single spin.

I’ll admit straight off that I was reading along from the inner sleeve and still didn’t immediately grasp the paired suites the album is divided into. As I listened, I did note a relatively clear difference in the overall sound of each side, but I didn’t put that fact into any conclusions. Additionally, I’m not sure I ever heard even Kate’s singles growing up (or “after” growing up, whenever that is–if I’ve even seen it yet), let alone any albums. Please bear these two things in mind, fans of Kate, and of this album in particular (which managed to eke out a teensy lead and win the poll over The Kick Inside, though I did hear a good reason to choose it–from the same person who suggested Kate in the first place, and who correctly noted that my poll inaccurately titled this album with the definite article “The”, for which I also apologize and will correct when it’s tucked into the previous poll results, but freely admit here for posterity).

While I hadn’t heard any of these song before (barring the half-hearted listens I referred to), I have heard and read enough that “Running up That Hill (A Deal with God)” rang some bells, at least with regard to it being a single. Apparently a very successful one, which I can readily understand. Stuart Elliott bangs out a powerful rhythm to open, but it’s immediately twisted by the introduction of what can only be Bush’s own Fairlight synthesizer, pulling out sounds that remind me of the (somewhat later, to be fair–1992) Thomas Dolby album Astronauts and Heretics–admittedly, a kind of meaningless reference, but I’m not sure how exactly to describe the sound. I’ve always found an appeal in it myself, as a sort of clearly electronic noise that seems more like a sort of low-pitched, warped, singing saw or something–the sounds are kind of like a knob being turned rapidly up and back down. Honestly, I’m pretty sure you have to hear it to understand. Kate’s voice has been known for its peculiar timbre, but is more clear than quirky here. She is her own backing vocalist, with sounds that are almost like vocal samples played from a synthesizer (and indeed might be). She does do something interesting with her voice–it sounds almost like she’s using it the way she’s playing that warping synth line: sometimes it seems to push on a single word as if she’s turning her volume up for just a moment, or sometimes like she’s holding a sustain pedal on it. I suppose it is quirky, in a way, but not an obvious one. The most fascinating thing about the song is that it doesn’t have a distinct instrumental progression–Elliott’s beat is nearly unchanging, and just trots along behind her, seeming as if it’s heading somewhere, but isn’t. It sounds like perhaps it’s a track to play behind an eighties cop show, but her voice is right for it, and completely destroys that chance, as it removes the overtly appealing “camp” somehow.

Opening a song with an obscure line of dialogue from a horror movie wins bonus points for anyone. The title track does just that, referencing Night of the Demon, a Jacques Tourneur flick form ’57 that I’ve yet to see, but was the source of the cover of the only horror movie book I ever saw on my dad’s shelf. If the name Tourneur means anything to you, you’re already a movie buff (or know one)–but this is #11 on Martin Scorsese’s list of scariest movies, though that’s not overly surprising considering his love for Val Lewton productions, of which three famous ones were Tourneur pictures. Considering it’s also from over a quarter century prior to the recording of this album, I’d say that qualifies it as obscure both then and now–so, bonus points awarded. Stuart Elliott returns, joined by Charlie Morgan, using a different but similarly big (there’s some of that ’80s drum sound here–that “huge” sound) beat. The way it’s laid over with synthesizer again gives it a similar feeling when compared to “Running up That Hill”, like it’s excised from the middle of a song that builds up to this beat and then calms again afterward, yet loses both slopes for the rhythm. Kate’s voice is not so strange as I recall it being in my brief listen to “Wuthering Heights” and the rest of The Kick Inside. It’s semi-normal as a whole, but used with an intensity and cadence that is only subtly outside the norm. The decision to turn her backing vocals into semi-“arf”s was also an amusing touch, but is very much a background to the sustained synth’s counterpoint to the rhythm, and the way the two complement her voice, and its proper placement in only the climactic point of a song, turned into an entire one.

I feel like I can’t quite get the point across about how this album sounds: it feels like it should sound like something else, like it should be a subdued and overtly palatable Enya album on some level, yet nothing really sounds like Enya, either. Or like it should be more bombastic like Big Country could be (such as on The Seer, where Kate guested on vocals). It’s some strange mix of those things and more, but sewn together easily into its own kind of odd sound, that manages to not be odd at all, unless you think about it. In “The Big Sky”, Charlie Morgan’s drums and Youth’s bass (apparently that’s Killing Joke’s own Martin Glover!) lay down a heavy weight again, though this time more acoustically accompanied by guitar and piano (though strings that are uncredited and probably synthesized appear). Kate’s voice is huge–appropriately, considering the title, I suppose–and backed by a delightful sort of non-verbal interjection from Kate at various points in her range, even wandering into the meandering vocal lines on her primary vocal track halfway through. When it all comes together around this time, it feels like the kind of unification that is the fade out of any other track that sounds anything like this, but only gets bigger and keeps going, Bush going here and there and everywhere with “all” of her “voices”.

“Mother Stands for Comfort” is perhaps the oddest song on Side One, starting with a halting drum beat (oddly reminiscent of Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good” opener), which has crashing, breaking glass dropped over it, Kate’s voice coming in on the low end with Eberhard Weber’s bass sliding and bending gently below it, but occasionally pulling into an aching high for a bass. The crashing sounds are chopped and used as rhythmic punctuation, with theremin-esque keys wobbling around behind her chorus (of sorts). Clear, acoustic piano and keyboard-played voices wander in and out throughout the rest, until it ends on half-chopped notes from the theremin-style synthesizer sounds. Delightful stuff, and very weird, in a good way.

Side One (and Hounds of Love) ends with “Cloudbusting”, which I also recognize as a single (as it happens 4/5 of Side One are singles–all but “Mother Stands for Comfort”). Beautiful strings from the Medici Sextet open the song with distinctly drawn bows, each muted enough to keep the notes quite separated, with just Kate’s voice. A momentary intrusion from a higher, twangier string instrument notes the song is not going to suddenly be a “normal” one. A full four-on-the-floor kick starts to back each draw of the strings, before the song nudges into a more forward-moving sort of feeling, the drums filled by quiet but insistent fills between the kicks, the strings no longer drawing lines between notes to keep the pace uninterrupted. It’s the story of a psychologist I’m not at all familiar with–Wilhelm Reich, as told by his son Peter, and his arrest for perceived subversive activities (later determined to be a mistake). It charges forward on the bass and those strings for seven minutes, accented by the beautiful and determined chorus that makes that delightful move of heavy syllable cramming: “Ooh, I just know that something good is going to happen/And I don’t know when/But just saying it could even make it happen…”

The Ninth Wave is a suite of sorts, generally taken to describe a drowning woman–some theorize it’s about various methods of death, someone else suggested maybe it’s the thoughts going through her head as it occurs, so on and so forth. It is quite strongly interconnected, in any case. “And Dream of Sheep” establishes that essential point: “If they find me racing white horses/They’ll not mistake me for a buoy”. It’s Kate singing to her own piano largely, though there are occasional dramatic flashes of rhythm, samples of gulls calling and the voice of announcements of shipping information. At the end, there is a gentle bouzouki melody from Donal Lunny and airy, spreading whistles from John Sheahan.
“Under Ice” has a rapidly speeding undertone of synthesized cellos and violins. Kate’s voice is largely at its lowest register in the album, harmonized with her brother Paddy. The lines of the lyrics are shorter, heavily punctuated as sung, and feel like the song’s description: the flashes of momentary thought as she falls into the water, thinking that the ice is cracking. The most lengthy and impassioned moments are like calling out for help and finding no one to hear it, as Kate sings “It’s me”, realizing the thing under the water is herself.
“Waking the Witch” is populated at first only by the varied voices of others, calling for her to wake up. Warm, slightly echoing–as though submerged, like in a film where you watch someone sink serenely–piano backs mostly kind voices. A slightly muffled set of voices interrupts: “We are of the going water and the gone/We are of water in the holy land of water”, and then a chopped voice–like a desperate call through water–comes from Kate’s voice, calling for help. Guitars, synthesizers, drums and clanging bells enter with a sense of urgency as a demonic, electronically modified verse trades off with a small chorus of Kates, until her water-chopped voice returns, asking again for help, somewhat more clearly. “Get out of the waves/Get out of the water!” a voice calls from a helicopter (borrowed from Pink Floyd, apparently!) and we hear, now, “Watching You Without Me”, which seems to be the drowning woman out of her body and watching a loved one. The Fairlight seems to emulate the sound of whistles and airy organs in the musical vicinity of calliopes, a thumping beat and a double bass (played by Danny Thompson) help to give the feeling of a kind of dried out relaxation, but a sort of supernatural oddity. Vocals sung “backwards” to play out as distorted attempts to communicate with the living have less urgency than the calls for help from the water, and don’t seem to connect to the “you” that is without her.
“Jig of Life” is uptempo, fiddles and urgency, the imagined voice of the aged drowning woman calling out to the woman to live, to come to see her in the mirror one day. Most of it is low and insistent, not overly passionate, until the chorus, where the woman’s future cries out for her to not let go, to live and go on to see the old woman in the mirror. It eventually moves to what is essentially its own fully instrumental jig, joviality tempered by determination, as if the jig will pull the woman out of it and keep her alive. John Carder Bush narrates the voice of another attempting to draw the drowning woman out.
With a sad, isolated piano and her voice “Hello Earth” has Kate somewhat bemusedly watching trailing objects in the sky, watching the world disappear, thinking that perhaps it’s okay that she can’t be saved. Full backing moves in slowly, wondering briefly if maybe there’s still a light at the end of it all–though that takes a bit of German. Worked in is a chorale (The Richard Hickox Singers) singing “Tsintskaro”, a Georgian folk song, in a quiet, muted set of voices with a downward bent emotionally, though with the barest hint of hope.
The Ninth Wave closes on “The Morning Fog”, suddenly bright and cheerful, but light to start, mostly light guitar (John Williams!) and then drums and synth and bass as Kate sings with the sound of returning to life and breath, answering with a very pretty backing of “Dom dom dee-a-dom doo”. She realizes her love for the people in her life, her joy at finding her breath not overly energetic, just as you would expect from someone only finding they can breathe again, but the music emulating the increasing joy and racing heartbeat of emotion at this realization of joy and love.

It’s a lot easier to process this album as its two halves, to be completely fair. The way The Ninth Wave works itself out is very much a closed system. It has nothing of the sound of Hounds of Love in it, and could, in fact, easily be its own album, albeit a rather short one at about 26 minutes. The sound of Hounds is more distinctly her own–not in the sense that I could tell you what her “sound” is, but it’s unique in and of itself, in the grander scheme of things. As much as there are hints of things I am familiar with, none carry even the feeling direct descent or ancestry musically. It was one of those moments where sitting down and paying attention let something really unfold in front of me, catching my ear with its curiosities and peculiarities without those elements needing to reach out and slap me in the face to get my attention.

It’s interesting, too, because none of this has the air of pretension about it. It feels like the work of someone who wrote five songs, and then wrote one long one, or a set of seven small ones that all worked into each other, and decided they fit that way, so that’s how they would all appear on an album. There’s no sense of “Ah, my cleverly constructed…” There are two rather large plays on words that end two songs in a row–in “Mother Stands for Comfort” and “Cloudbusting”, but neither feels like an entire setup intended for that end, nor forced even in its place. They are both subtle, and best illustrated by the printed lyrics, as their alternate readings are the most contextually relevant as you hear them. That they are even the same essential idea is only more clever, most clever because they seem natural. The lyrics are not always apparent or clear, but always feel right. They aren’t consistent in meter, rhyme or much of anything else, yet they fit into the correct nooks and crannies of the songs. The way she sings is, as I said at the beginning, not so intensely quirky as I have heard, but uses her voice to sounds less like the way we expect a voice to be used, and more like the way one might, in particular, play a keyboard instrument. The emphases and held notes resemble, in a subtle way, the kind of distinct shifts that are possible with keys in particular, and the kind of lengthy sustain that pianos (and, more artificially, synthesizers) can hold. That these are the instruments she herself plays on the album feels like it’s no coincidence.

I’m going to need to listen to this album more, and, given enough time, give the others some time, too. It’s somewhat dated–in the only sense I’d use that in: it places it in its time of origin. I rarely feel that “dating” is a negative, or a complete counterpoint to “timeless”, though a certain measure of “timelessness” can appeal as well. Yet, it doesn’t feel utterly mired in and inextricable from a time frame I could specify. The Ninth Wave is obviously taken best as what it is: a singular work, rather than isolated pieces. While the grooves indicate it has separations, the actual auditory flow doesn’t make much of a deal out of those pauses, fitting them into the movement of the entire side of the album.

  • Next Up: The Buzzcocks – Singles Going Steady

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