- 30 Jul 21
Happy 63rd Birthday, Kate Bush! To celebrate, we're revisiting Dermot Stokes' review of her iconic fifth studio album, Hounds of Love – originally published in Hot Press in 1985. Partly recorded at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, the chart-topping record featured appearances from the likes of Donal Lunny, John Sheahan and Liam O'Flynn...
The opening paragraph is always the most difficult. That first couple of sentences where you try to ensnare the reader's attention and make some kind of substantive statement that sums up the artist's work to date and his/her relationship to the public, god and mammon in no particular order. But how do you do it with Kate Bush?
True, there's the fact that her single off this album 'Running Up That Hill' must go down as another victim of fate, a tour-de-force coming from nowhere to almost define the peak of the summer's pop charts. And after three years away as well.
But what of the wider picture? Kate Bush peaked from the start. That's not an easy burden to bear, even for one so obviously and prodigiously gifted, and her output since then bears all the hallmarks of such preconsciousness, some of it brilliant by even the most exacting standards, but some of it also self-indulgent, overstated, and sometimes downright wacky. One thinks of England, one thinks of her lionheart.
Compare that with her single of some years ago, 'The Dreaming', a work of what can only fairly be described as genius, and you'll see what I mean. And yet even that record had a cover painting with the caption "The Rock Phython was tired and her babies were crying so she stopped at a cave and painted herself there," which, read one way, is quite meaningful in the context of the song, but read another way is... Jackanory.
So that's the challenge for Kate. She is obviously and inarguably one of the most powerful intelligences of modern pop, exceptionally well-lettered in words and music, gifted with a facility for lyrics and the composition and (critically) the nerve to go for things that the muse suggests but others mightn't. And she can dance, and sing as well! And how! But can all this profusion of talent be harnessed to produce The Work, the album of sustained power that she has signified but not yet produced?
Well, by Jasus, if this album isn't it, it's awful close. The single, 'Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)' has already stated the case, but it's just the beginning. The album covers many more bases than that, and what immediately impresses is the way Kate Bush controls the very modern array of technology at his disposal - and the manner in which she orchestrates herself and the instruments onto the songs.
Using her voice, both through various effects generators and as a lead vocalist, she has devised a mechanism whereby some of her more quirky - and sometimes irritating - vocal mannerisms can be integrated into the album as orchestral elements, giving them a real context.
True, here and there, as in 'Hounds Of Love', her vocal comes close to the moment of grate-ness that signifies a mite too much mannerism for comfort, but several hearings show it to be more or less in context.
One track in particular 'And Dream Of Sleep' seems to me to sum up the strengths of the album. Actually it's a simple piano-accompanied ballad, evoking that moment of despair when you can't sleep and want to, but it is made by the melody the orchestration, (simple interpolations on bouzouki by Donal Lunny and whistle by John Sheahan), and the imagery: "If they find me racking white horses/They'll not take me for a buoy." Now where did that come from? And the last line "Ooh their breath is warm/And they smell like sleep/And they say they take me home/Like poppies heavy with seed." Poppies heavy with seed! Yes!
Which is another way of saying that many of the songs here are evocative not explicit, the words used are imagistic and mercurial in their choice, and deployment. They come from the apparently vast store of references that Kate Bush has accumulated through reading, seeing, listening, touching... Good grief! Almost lost it there!
But there is a truth in the over-statement, that the album touches on, let's say, areas that most others don't, without ever really becoming absolutely specific - in 'Mother Stands For Comfort' for example, there is reference to the murderer, the madman. But is it literal or figurative?
Some people may not be mad about the idea of songs that reveal themselves as a range of possibilities of meaning rather than statements, but personally I like it - in the right hands. It's not vagueness, it's simple the use of words that are loaded with meanings depending on the angle from which you approach them. The other side of this is the strength of the production, the careful architecture of the noise. There is a great density here, a richness.
Irish people will derive amusement and interest from two elements, the Irish influence in the music, some of which was recorded here (arrangements by Bill Whelan) and the song 'Waking The Witch', the third track in a remarkable series of dream evocations that open side two. "Bless me father for I have sinned," she sings. "I question your innocence," he thunders in reply. Ah yes!
Hounds Of Love has continued to invite repeated listens, and (a good sign) keeps on revealing new responses, and showing the intent of the various eccentricities. There are a few other singles there, but it's not really that kind of album. It's a very powerful and, dare I say it, female album, and I'll be a playing it long than most.