Kate Bush – Hounds of Love
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
One of the generalizations I formed at an early age is that the ‘70s were an intensely introspective decade. I claim this, almost embarrassingly, based mostly upon my un-exhaustive observations of that era’s relics of art and popular culture. The fuck-it fun of disco aside, it seems to this child of the ‘80s that (again, generalizing) the war in Vietnam, the lionization of drug use, and the disregard in which the establishment was held led to a steady move inward aesthetically. Films ranging from the middlebrow to the art-house had moved from preachy ethics lessons inspired by King Kong to the internalized cinema of the mind. In The Conversation, The Passenger, and Apocalypse Now, the protagonists’ conflicts stem from (and come to symbolize) their own internal duality. Witness Gene Hackman tearing apart his room in search of a phantom eavesdropping device, the stripped walls of his apartment mirroring the crumbling halls of his mind.
It’s a fair bet to say that Kate Bush’s 1985 effort Hounds of Love comes from a similarly ransacked place. Bush had written her previous albums with high-minded, literary flair, but she aimed Hounds at the macroscopic level by writing in two thematic arcs that reflected the competing Kate Bushes. Adorned with stabs of Fairlight synthesizer, unified by driving percussion, Hounds of Love pushed Bush’s self-produced and increasingly complex recording process even further (the album came three years after The Dreaming).
There exist similarities between Hounds and The Dreaming, including the continual deepening of Bush’s once high-pitched voice; but The Dreaming had an almost frantic luxuriousness. Charged with music-hall energy, the album’s genre-hopping scared all but the most ardent supporters. While it’s her worst-selling album, a number of fans regard it as her creative peak. Meanwhile, Hounds would take many of the same risks and generate an astronomically larger cult following. Twenty-two years later, it’s “Running Up That Hill” spinning in the gay clubs, and “Hounds of Love” getting covered by bands-of-the-week, and “Under Ice” being sampled by Swedish techno producers a quarter-second at a time. If it didn’t have its foot lodged in the canon door upon initial release, word of mouth has elevated it, and her, to rarified status. Kate accomplished it all by stepping back from the brash, obtuse The Dreaming and simply bifurcating herself, enabling her to be a sometime pop star and sometime introvert, and not everything at once.
Like Bowie in his Berlin Trilogy, on Hounds Bush parsed herself according to the duality of LP sides—here it’s sky and water, which would become recurring themes (cf. Aerial’s “Sky/Sea of Honey”). The first half, titled “Hounds of Love,” looks to the heavens with a startling measure of sunlit clarity, with straightforward songs and Bush’s famous pipes lowered an octave, perhaps due to age or pre-emptive self-preservation. Here, you find Kate’s most recognizable mid-period output: pop anthems building slowly to bombastic climaxes, backed by the steady percussion of Stuart Elliott and Charlie Morgan. One of the most iconic and star-making moments, the side-closing “Cloudbusting,” received a striking promotional video treatment starring Kate as the son of a cloud-seeding Donald Sutherland.
The more oblique “Ninth Wave” progression tells of a woman lost at sea, facing the possibility of death. Bits of the woman’s story emerge through allusions in accounts of ghosts and condemned witches, eventually enabling us to cobble together the narrative. While Kate’s still writing pop songs on this side, with hooks that still stick, there’s an ephemeral quality to the tracks similar to Brian Eno’s pioneering art-pop work. The “Hounds” tracks clearly contextualized their hooks, but the reverie of “Ninth Wave” defies a firm grounding, much like Another Green World’s elusive pop.
There’s one more nod to an ambient pioneer on Hounds: Bush gives thanks to Florian Fricke of Popol Vuh along with film director Werner Herzog in the liner notes. While “Ninth Wave” is certainly indebted to Fricke in many ways, it’s not immediately obvious what the thank-you actually references. It turns out Bush adapted “Zinskaro,” a choral chant used in Herzog’s 1979 remake of Nosferatu, into the closing strains of the bagpipe epic “Hello Earth.”
On it, Bush’s protagonist reflects upon the breaking dawn, she sees light, she breathes air, and she contemplates her mother, her father, and her loved ones. But, inevitably, she eventually sinks into the depths, imagining a misty re-birth as she falls. From the high clouds back down to mother Earth: it’s a startling progression, a hard-hearted study in extremes that Bush forces upon herself. “Ninth Wave” is certainly Bush’s comment on her own reluctance to stay in the limelight, but the “Hounds” side is just as much her unwillingness to give it up. What seems certain is that while Bush is trying to play out the battles between the spotlight and the studio, there doesn’t seem to be an answer in Hounds of Love to who should win the war. Of course, we know the conclusion: four years until The Sensual World is released. Another four until The Red Shoes. And then twelve years before 2005’s Aerial. And so Kate the pop star, the plucky Donald Sutherland co-star, loses out to Kate the introvert, the artist, the home-maker.
Like the great introspective figures of the ‘70s, she first breathes in the intoxicating air of the sky, toying with pop stardom like it were child’s play, and then bathes in self-denial. Yet in Hounds of Love, the menagerie of contrasting images projects the complexities of her own vulnerability that she had never before touched. She questions the protection of family. She questions the strength of community. She parts her hair, breaks through the arctic barrier of impenetrability, and in two acts expresses her wish to be neither an icon nor an artist, but a human first. For David Bowie, the Other Side is a rebirth. For Brando’s Kurtz, or Kinski’s Aguirre, or Hackman’s Harry Caul, the Other Side is the deepest, darkest corner of the Id, from which there is often no return. For Kate, the Other Side is home.