On First Listen
Kate Bush

on 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.

If I've failed to listen to Kate Bush until now, blame ignorance and not aversion. Given the general path of musical taste down byroads of connectivity, how would one arrive at Kate Bush? She really has no peer, only followers (most of which didn't really ever stir anything in me), and as for predecessors... Stevie Nicks? Please. How could I have known that Bush would be far more Baba Yaga than Rhiannon? How could I have comprehended the sharp contrast between the wan I've-just-discovered-my-breasts sexuality of Sarah McLachlan & Co. and the fresh-as-a-burst-grape, ochre-scented muskiness of La Bush and her arrant womanhood?

If I had any experience with Her Kateness prior to sitting down to the pot-au-feu of Hounds of Love and the six-plate tapas of Aerial, it was but a nibble. I could recognize the wobbly-eerie synth figure from "Running Up That Hill," I knew and loved her contributions to the Peter Gabriel recovery-group anthem "Don't Give Up," and I'd mentally catalogued the infamous Never For Ever cover, wherein a procession of extras from the Natural History museum and the works of Tolkien, Dunsany, and the Brothers Grimm emerge from 'neath her billowing skirt.

A bottle of Syrah and a rainy weekend spent absorbing Hounds of Love and Aerial quickly cured me of this problem. The literary pretensions and overweening femininity I'd expected from the media's treatment of her dissolved almost instantly into vivid explosions of color, well-tempered intelligence, and raw sensuality. Here was the Goddess behind all my female heroes: as role-playing/rewriting as Siouxsie, as tender and torn as Beth Orton, as deliciously odd as the boggling Danielle Dax.

Portrayed by the media as something of a fragile, Byronic childe (somewhat understandable in light of her precociousness), she seemed more redolent of refined sensitivity than emotional weakness. Especially when so obviously counterbalanced by her strength—no, not even strength. Power. Bush wears the veil of the winsome damsel only to conceal the frightful banshee underneath. Perhaps once the former was true, but her heart got hurt real bad one stormy night, and now she's emerged from the Gothic twilight, dressed to kill and ready to kick some ass.

Much of the first half of Hounds of Love is taut with action and precise moments of super-realization: the sun breaks through the clouds, the hounds of love are hunting in the night, "you never understood me / You never really tried," running up that building, breaking the cage so fear can escape, "just saying it could even make it happen." "You want my reply? What was the question? I was looking at the big sky."

It's tormented and fraught with intrigue (who is the fox? what's she hiding from mother?), but it's self-reliant, and even when she sings "help me someone, help me please" you dare not come to her rescue. She's too much for anyone, man, mother, or beast. Still, she longs for sleep, just like the rest of us, but if "And Dream of Sheep" is a gentle plea for slumber, "Under Ice" is the nightmare. Treated strings jabber and the storm earlier dispersed by "Cloudbusting" gathers again, while a gentle vision of winter (the song begins "it's wonderful," if you can believe it) only conceals an unknown shibboleth trapped below her feet, moving, "trying to get out of the cold water."

If that sounds a little disturbing, it's best you skip back to "Running Up That Hill" and then turn the record player off. "Waking the Witch" is freakier still. A dozen friendly voices chatter, someone recites the Lord's Prayer and John Tesh tickles the ivories, until the Pet Shop Boys arrive to drop a beat over which Kate ejaculates indecipherables and nursery rhymes while a basso profondo goblin has a particularly nasty case of indigestion. The crowd chants "guilty," but the only thing anyone's guilty of here is bad taste.

Luckily, for most of the rest of the album Kate restrains the urge to completely immerse herself in the Bog of Stench, although we still have to struggle through the mythopoetic discord and incessant fiddling of "Jig of Life," as well as the mini-opera "Hello Earth," which I can't even begin to decipher. Something's stirring, there are some sailors and a bagpipe. She sounds hopeful, however, so we must be starting to shed some of that Celtic frost. By "The Morning Fog" Our Lady has regained her brio, feels like she's "being born again" and is all ready to tell her family, you and everyone else that she loves them. Wonderful, dear. Just lay off the fiddling goblins from now on, okay?

Aerial, her 2005 return of the mack, makes for a stunning contrast to the febrile sensuality and runaway weirdness of Hounds of Love. The popular take on it when it was released was that it was Kate's missive on the pleasures of domesticity and motherhood, full of the quiet hum of household equipment and the placid comforts of the settled life. For those of us committed to refined hedonism as a full-time occupation, this is not much of a surpris—inherent in every youthful libertine is the wine-sipping aesthete they will one day become. Aerial is not so much the sound of settling down and giving up as it is the aural beatification of adulthood's more nuanced thrills.

And, while Aerial might actually discuss doing the scrubbing, it's best to leave the dishes alone to fully appreciate the joy and absurdity of Kate singing the words "washing machine" over and over again for three minutes. Slow, swirling movements and relaxed, satin-y touches are the rule here. Gone are the garish colors and Victorian heroines, the corsets and bustles, the brazen, fruity noises of mid-‘80s keyboards and Fairlight samplers. A mellow acoustic classicism and a discrete, balanced mix between voice and accompaniment make Aerial far more professional-sounding. An album made by an adult, for adults. Wonderful, but something I'll appreciate far more as a listener when my own Hounds of Love period has run its course. Which fits the queenly Kate Bush perfectly. Her music, if nothing else, overwhelms the senses with each stroke, subtle or broad, and demands to be appreciated for what it is on its own terms.

Akin to finally reading Julio Cortazar, first stumbling across the paintings of Cocteau, or seeing the sun rise for the first time from the beach of Barceloneta, absorbing the music of La Bush has been a transformative experience for me. Where had I been? Ultimately, a question much less important than where I'm going—to the record store to pick up The Sensual World, to the market to buy something red from the Rioja, and back home, where the distant hum of my washing machine is always there to console my fervid heart, which bursts anew each morning like a ripened plum. "I just know that something good is gonna happen."

Albums Listened To
Hounds of Love

By: Mallory O’Donnell
Published on: 2007-04-17
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