The moment you realise that Kate Bush is a unique artist unlike any other can strike you at any given time. For many, it happens upon first listening. For me, well, it took a lot longer and with a great deal of pushing and a hefty dose of “I told you so”, but now I’m atop of this hill (having crawled rather than ran), and it’s one that I will happily die upon.
Of course, I had been aware of Bush’s work for some time. I was blessed with a musically minded family who was as happy for me to gorge on radio and MTV for experimentation and education as they were for me to soda stream my milk (don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it). Bush’s track ‘Wuthering Heights’ had been pronounced as “one of the greatest songs ever written” during one particularly lovelorn day for my older brother. Her visually enveloping, but somewhat scary to a child, videos were a mainstay of the ‘classic rock’ channels of our low-level Sky TV subscription that seemed to provide a lifeforce to all of us who watched it — but Kate Bush just never clicked with me.
In fact, in my twenties, I could be heard across tin-pot pubs with sawdust floors scattered around the north of England widely touting Bush’s work as pop rubbish fodder for those who dream in lavender and perfumed prose. Essentially, it was not for me. Then, as is often the way, I met a beautiful girl who just so happened to have an uncanny resemblance to a certain ‘Babooshka’ loving singer. She, a fan, effortlessly talked me into giving Bush’s album Hounds of Love a listen (“in full!”) before making my sweeping declaration a finality.
It was a good choice, as Bush’s second record to top the UK albums chart and her best-selling studio record to date, it was certified double platinum for 600,000 sales in the UK, and by 1998, it had sold 1.1 million copies worldwide, is a triumph. I sat down to listen, as intently as possible, to Kate Bush’s 1985 record, ready to reaffirm my position with some witty retorts and expertly practised snorts of derision.
I was almost instantly hooked. The first hit of ‘Running Up That Hill’ was, when given ample room to breathe, not just a pop masterpiece but an undulating and intriguing song like none I had ever heard before or quite possibly since. Entrenched in the idea that our protagonist has finally managed to see life through the eyes of her lover, it explored unknown areas of the pop world. The seismic shift in my position continued to change and make me look…like a right twat.
The title track arrives with a simple power that renders it one of the best pop songs ever written. Drums thunder like they only do in folklore, and Bush’s vocal manages to range from the utterly beautiful to the beautifully guttural. Bush expressed herself through her instrument, unlike any artist I had ever heard.
The first moments of that song also provide another area often left untouched by precocious musical snobs such as my younger self. Kate Bush was a multimedia visionary. “It’s in the trees, it’s coming!” the first words of ‘Hounds of Love’ was initially taken from the 1957 British horror film Night of the Demon. It showed that Bush, along with the fast-paced musical world of the eighties, was not only willing to change but was adamant about her evolution.
The album sees Bush commanding this ever-changing landscape with the staunch command of a tribal queen, not by simply submitting to new technologies but by moulding them into her image. She employed the most state-of-the-art studio technology, using a delicate mixture of synths, Linn drum machines and use of the Fairlight CMI sampler to become a unique proposition of new in 1985. The addition of this modernity into Bush’s already overflowing crucible of folk, theatrics and tradition, created a truly unique sound. Samplers and synths are mixed with choirs in ‘Hello Earth’ while ‘Jig Of Life’, as one might expect, was a traditional Irish ditty discovered by her brother Paddy.
It’s a marriage of duelling concepts which she also manages to produce throughout much of the album’s run time. Bush expertly uses the themes of love and romance to colour much of the initial sheen one feels when first listening — but there are still moments of darkness littered throughout the record. Whether it’s the brilliant ‘Cloudbusting’, whose theme focuses on the Austrian psychologist Wilhelm Reich, a man who built a cloudbusting device powered by cosmic energy, and, incidentally, a man who was later arrested by the FBI. Or, indeed, the threat of impending and terrifying death in ‘Under Ice’, Bush delivers all her emotions as candidly as possible.
In truth, while this album certainly was my epiphanic moment when discovering Kate Bush, it could be argued it was hers too. While she had already been creating heart-stopping music for some years, becoming the first-ever female to take a number one spot with a self-penned track in ‘Wuthering Heights’, this was the album that Bush dropped the pop shackles and created something truly special.
The album arrived in 1985 after a lengthy period of silence from the artist, a period away from the limelight, which had led to a number of her fans becoming concerned. Before the LP arrived, Bush had left her supporters a singular note, one that appeared as part of her fan club newsletter. “This year has been very positive so far,” she said. “It doesn’t have the same air of doom and gloom that ‘81 and ‘82 seemed to hold. The problem is that if I don’t make an album this year, there will be at least another two-year gap, and the way business and politics are, it would be a negative situation. I seem to have hit another quiet period. I intend to keep on writing for the first part of the year, so yet again I slip away from the eyeball of the media to my home.”
This would’ve likely been the cause for Hounds of Love and its incredible artistic success both within the music world and outside of it. This isolation from the ‘pop world’ clearly allowed Bush to incubate songs she had never done before. To develop her thoughts on the duality of life and show it in her work. It allowed her to be untainted by the demands of Smash Hits et al. and instead focus on the expression of the poetry in her soul.
That is, for me, where Bush’s Hounds of Love should be firmly placed, in the soul, with all the other poetry. The album manages to collate a myriad of themes and melodies and load them one by one into consciousness, unravelling with every note into something that becomes yours entirely as the audience.
She equally develops themes of love, heartbreak, life, and death with equal measure, equal light and dark, and, most notably, equal beauty. It’s fair to say I owe a lot to that girl… sorry, I should say, my wife. She provided me with one of my favourite albums of all time and allowed me to recheck my adolescent opinions against learned ears. She allowed me to truly enjoy the work of an extraordinary artist.
Simply put, Kate Bush is a master painter and Hounds of Love is truly her masterpiece.