n First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.
It’s hard not to take large gulps of Kate Bush. You do not take in slowly a woman who dresses in lion suits and undercurrents. And while it’s easy to think her a bit of a twit on first introduction, it’s clear after listening to Lionheart and Hounds of Love that Bush is less a riled-up waif than she is a brash intellectual, as likely to produce precise, affecting balladry as she is woozy, shaken flotsam. Her style is impressively difficult to date, containing few trappings of mid-‘80s UK pop music and avoiding all but the slickest comparisons to ‘70s forbears: Fleetwood Mac at their sturdiest and most ornate; an ostentatious David Bowie; an art-damaged, gyrating Todd Rundgren.
Sex is one of Bush’s draws, it’s told, possibly because she was writing songs on the topic as a young teenager, more likely because she’s thin, pretty, and charged-up on her album covers, thus fulfilling a lot of rock-nerd fantasies. Don’t believe the hype—Bush, ever-calculating, is one of the least erotic artists I’ve ever studied. Her classical training hurts her: poses are theatrically exaggerated, and the result is artificial arousal. She’s incapable of flirty glances or gently parted lips; instead she licks her lips and meows in formal big-stage gestures. This extroverted technique works for dying pilots—“Oh England My Lionheart”—but her advances and come-hithers are too rehearsed and sterile to genuinely excite, especially on the by-numbers big-shot mysticism of Lionheart.
Lionheart’s pop core fares little better, victimized by Bush’s too-eager vocal acrobatics and nosy production. Tracks like “Wow” and “Don’t Push Your Foot on the Heartbreak,” both of which have their hooks, dissolve too easily into showtune bullshit, a complicated trick that many better singer-songwriters couldn’t pull off with two octaves added to their vocal range and an MTV “Made” coach, but a trick that nonetheless muddies up any plebian pop-album momentum you may or may not be mustering.
Bush also suffers from a peculiar type of artistic indifference common amongst songwriting prodigies: She started writing at such a young age that her main inspirations are situations and ‘events’—“Lionheart”’s soldier, “Kashka from Baghdad,” even “Wuthering Heights”—with which she has little or no personal connection. Too often on Lionheart Bush chooses her subjects, and while this doesn’t mean she can’t write an affecting tale of a soldier crashing in an airplane, the transparency of the process is unbecoming (see also: Joel, Billy).
Lionheart has little in common stylistically with oft-cited career highlight Hounds of Love, an album that I’m not overly ashamed to admit I didn’t know existed until a certain Futureheads cover; even then, I spent the better part of a year thinking Bush was Carole King. These things happen. Unlike the unnatural, professional songcraft of Lionheart, Hounds of Love goes a long way to justify the “Female David Bowie” and “English Björk” tags that I’ve heard bandied about Bush’s name. If trying way too hard to be sexy and involved and melodically obtuse on Lionheart was unbecoming, trying way too hard to be icy and dramatic and structurally obtuse is somehow an easier horse to ride. Hounds of Love seems no less the product of nerdy fantasies and uncounted hours in front of a mixing board, but it pulses where Lionheart pouted.
All of a sudden, we’re dancing: Hounds of Love’s propulsive string arrangements hint at Arthur Russell’s herky-jerky disco, but stop just on pop’s side of the tracks. The extended club mixes of “The Big Sky” and “Running Up That Hill” that accompany the Hounds of Love reissue don’t quite outstrip their album counterparts, but they help explain why Hounds of Love became such a crossover hit. The awkward sexuality that permeated Lionheart disappears on Hounds of Love primarily because Bush learned to transfer all of that energy to drums and keyboards and sultry little vocal tics; the way she whispers the first chorus of “Hounds of Love.”
Hounds of Love’s startlingly avant-garde second half justifies side one’s Formal Experiments in Bad Album Sequencing (i.e. please don’t ever frontload the obvious singles like that again, please). “Watching You Without Me” employs hearty restraint and charming vocal tics, while “Waking the Witch” rolls the dice with gothic bells and an exaggerated, executioner grunts. It’s a fierce step away from the charming gallop of “Running Up That Hill,” but the risk-taking makes Bush seem vibrant and inspired, rather than merely talented and ambitious.
The party line explains Lionheart away as a rushed sophomore effort that even Bush regrets, but it’s a dubious claim mostly because nothing about that album feels off-the-cuff or rushed, merely sterile and under-inspired. Hounds of Love goes a long way to correct Lionheart rehearsed verse, though damn if its imaginative wash doesn’t feel a bit scripted itself. Still, Hounds of Love’s hard-won artistry feels redeeming, and it’s easy to feel at home inside its watery, fertile pop music. Would that Bush ever feel so comfortable herself.
Albums Listened To
Hounds of Love