(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #22 – released September 16, 1985. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 1/16/2015.)
Track listing: Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) / Hounds of Love / The Big Sky / Mother Stands For Comfort / Cloudbusting / And Dream of Sheep / Under Ice / Waking The Witch / Watching You Without Me / Jig Of Life / Hello Earth / The Morning Fog
If The Dreaming established Kate Bush as a major visionary in pop music, Hounds of Love managed the neat trick of expanding her reach both artistically and commercially. It outsold the earlier album, topped the UK album charts and even scored her a top 40 single in the States (her only one to date). Simultaneously, while to the casual observer less angry and bonkers than the earlier album, sections of it are still out there and, on the whole, it’s a considerable undertaking for anyone diving into her catalog for the first time. Although I’ve often cited The Dreaming as my favorite Kate Bush album, I’ve come to cherish this follow-up just as much, even though there is far from an expected progression between the two records.
For all of its complexities, Hounds of Love is neatly divided into two halves (or “sides” in the pre-digital days). Side One contains five songs that frequently showcase Bush at her most approachable (all but one were singles), although none of them would move anyone to accuse her of selling out or calculatingly courting a mainstream audience. Opener “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” was that sole US Top 40 single; that it even peaked at #30 (and #3 in the U.K.) is still a little mind-blowing. It begins with an almost ambient wash of noise before drums and the song’s signature wonky synth riff emerge. The lyrics are at once easily comprehensible and stubbornly enigmatic: what exactly is this “deal with God” she’s making and what does she hope to accomplish by getting “Him to swap our places”? We can ponder this over and over while automatically singing along to the catchy (if also strangely dissonant) melody. You can give it a dozen spins and still not entirely wrap your head around its meaning and purpose, or even pick up on all the bizarre processed backing vocals in the margins. And yet, enough people listened, and listened again to make this Bush’s signature hit—a remixed version even cracked the top ten again in 2012 when the song was included in the ceremonies for the London Summer Olympics.
The title track follows with a bang (“It’s in the trees! It’s coming!!”), announcing a brisk uptempo number capturing that elusive, exhilarating rush of falling madly, head-over-heels in love, losing control and giving yourself over completely to it, not even caring how daft it sounds to replace your “do, do, do’s” with canine-mimicking “arf, arf, arf’s”. The regal, glorious chorus (“Take your shoes off / and throooooww them in the lake”) plays over fervent synth violins that only enhance the song’s overriding ecstasy. Bush retains that gleeful rush on the next song, “The Big Sky”. Sounding unexpectedly dainty on the opening triplets, she lets go of any demureness by the time she hits the first chorus, at which the song becomes an extended two-chord vamp that builds, and builds, and builds. All furiously strummed guitars, “diddley-da, diddley-da” nonsense backing vox, and an army of percussive handclaps, it goes out on a two minute plus, sped-up “Hey Jude”-like coda that is one of the most blissful, jubilant things you’ll ever hear—if you listen closely enough, you might even detect Madonna’s similarly elated “Ray of Light” thirteen years off in the future.
After all this joy, Bush takes a breather with the downcast “Mother Stands For Comfort” (the one non-single on Side One). It’s the track here that could most easily fit on The Dreaming, particularly on that album’s ballad-heavy second half. Like “Night of the Swallow” and “Houdini”, it’s essentially piano-and-voice, but that’s only one layer. Sudden crashing noises make up the percussion, another wonky synth riff mirrors the melodic vocal hook, and again, the margins are stuffed with all these odd little sounds, like Bush caterwauling along with an “Ah-oooo!”. Perhaps, not one her best-loved songs, but in the album’s sequence, it gives us time to cool down before Side One’s final track, “Cloudbusting”. A staccato string arrangement kicks it off, with Bush delivering lyrics about philosopher William Reich and his young son as the two attempt the rainmaking process that lends the song its title. A martial beat joins the strings on the first chorus and much like “The Big Sky”, the song just builds from there, adding on countermelodies, wordless chorales and subtle loud/soft dynamics—complex for pop song, but it’s all in service of a hook so indelible (“Ooooh, I just know that something good is going to happen!”) that it was sampled to great effect by Utah Saints seven years later for their rave hit “Something Good”.
If Hounds of Love’s first half is the closest Bush ever came to pop perfection, Side Two reveals how vast her ambitions were at this point. The album’s final seven tracks form a twenty-six minute suite called “The Ninth Wave”, the title of an 1850 work by Russian Armenian painter Ivan Aivazovsky which depicts people hanging on to a shipwreck at sea. Bush herself has described the suite as being “About a person who is alone in the water for the night. It’s about their past, present and future coming to keep them awake, to stop them drowning, to stop them going to sleep until the morning comes.” While the drowning aspect of the narrative is easily discernible, the whole thing nearly plays like a mini-opera, one oblique enough that most might require a lyric sheet to follow along.
A more effective way of approaching “The Ninth Wave” may be to consider its trajectory of emotions and sudden, significant tonal shifts. The suite begins rather sweetly with “And Dream Of Sheep”, a gentle lullaby harkening back to the relative simplicity of Bush’s earlier girl-and-a-piano tunes. It doesn’t last, for “Under Ice” is turn-on-a-dime sinister, snaking and accelerating just like the Jaws theme as its heroine descends into sleep/underwater. The next song, “Waking The Witch”, starts with an extensive, disorienting collage of pensive, echoing piano chords and various sampled voices speaking variations of the phrase, “Wake up!” (similar to the “Goodbyes” in the outro of The Dreaming’s “All The Love”). Then, everything goes haywire all at once: layers of Bush’s vocal seemingly cut up into a thousand million pieces as she sings nonsensical childlike verse underneath (“red, red roses / pinks and posies”), samples of cathedral bells and a courtroom of men crying “GUILTY!”, and what sounds like the Satanic Demon Creature of Your Worst Nightmares, among many other noises. Possibly the single most challenging track in Bush’s catalog, it defies categorization, unnerving and overwhelming the listener with its full-on attack and total dismissal of traditional pop song structure.
After a whirring helicopter and a male voice shouting, “Get out of the water!”, the song fades out and a markedly calmer soundscape surfaces. Gently bobbing like a buoy on the waves, “Watching You Without Me” comes as a sigh of relief with its seesawing beat, playful synths and basic, two chord progression—then, you notice the unintelligible backing vocals, and also the backward vocals. Just when the last track’s insanity has all but faded, Bush throws in a dash of that weird-as-fuck sliced-and-diced vocal from it, perhaps as a little reminder that this song is simply a segue. The fiddle that introduces and drives the next track is an unexpected shock to the senses (unlike the title track’s proclamation, you don’t at all see it coming). In a possible nod to her Irish mum’s heritage, “Jig of Life” reprises the traditional instruments last heard on The Dreaming’s “Night of the Swallow” at an equally joyous and menacing tempo. Midway through, there’s an actual minute-plus long jig breakdown as intense as anything the Pogues ever came up with, followed by a poetic reverie spoken by her older brother, John Carder Bush.
After “Jig of Life” hits its final resounding chord, Bush announces the expansive yet intimate “Hello Earth”, belting out its title and immediately sobering us up. This is the type of grand, epic orchestral ballad Bush had been writing since “Wuthering Heights”; as much as I adore that singular debut single, “Hello Earth” shows how far she had come in just seven years. If you listen closely enough, a few of the suite’s various threads reappear, such as the Irish instruments and the phrase “Get out of the water”. Still, the song resonates on an emotional level above all—as Bush sings of drowning and/or dying (“Go to sleep, little earth” is the song’s last spoken line), the arrangement both suitably haunts (that low, slow, moaning chorale taking over when the music suddenly drops out twice) and chills (those icy, lingering orchestral crescendos straight out of a horror film).
And then, just as “Hello Earth” dribbles to a close, “The Morning Fog” materializes at full volume via a loudly plucked harp. Blissful and uplifting, it is a song of rebirth with a fresh, vibrant pastoral arrangement. The preceding drama having ceased, Bush sounds wonderfully happy—she’s made it through a rough night and has emerged unscathed and renewed, reveling in the pleasure of just being alive. While “The Ninth Wave” bears the influence of side two of Abbey Road and any number of prog-rock suites that followed throughout the 1970s, it stands apart in one significant way: instead of placing great emphasis on recurring musical motifs and reprisals to tie all the disparate sections together, Bush seems to have crafted this as a journey of the mind, heart and soul. It may take ten or twenty listens (perhaps even more) to comprehend every last bit of her dense text, but the array of feelings it evokes is immediately apparent—you may not literally be there with her in the water, but if you give yourself over completely to her serenity, her madness, her melancholy and her jubilance, well, it’s enough to make you wish you could take your own shoes off and dive right in beside her.
Up next: A heavenly way to die.
“Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”: