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Thursday 20 August 2020

Slow Reviews | music | 1985

Hounds of Love

John Tiffany on an album that merged pop with poetry

I first experienced Hounds of Love in 1985. I was a restless 13-year-old from Huddersfield, greedy for creative stimulation and intoxicated by music.

I can trace the exact moment my obsession with Kate Bush began to earlier that year. Standing in front of the Radio One Roadshow stage, framed by a bruised Lancashire sky, the drums of ‘Running Up That Hill’ pulsed over Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach… and life would never be the same again. Back then, I only ever listened to female artists.

Karen Carpenter and Ella Fitzgerald were favourites of my mum’s; Madonna was fast becoming fundamental to my sexual and musical education; and Whitney Houston was about to release ‘Saving All My Love for You’, the 12” vinyl of which I cherish to this day. Still, at the ripe old age of 13, I was aware that Kate Bush and her Hounds of Love came from a world hitherto undiscovered.

Hounds of Love is unique in that it is the only album I’m aware of that fuses two seemingly incompatible musical acts into a perfect whole. Act One opens with ‘Running Up That Hill’ and progresses through ‘Hounds of Love’, ‘The Big Sky’ and ‘Mother Stands for Comfort’ towards its breath-taking finale, ‘Cloudbusting’. All of these songs are masterpieces.

It is the second act of Hounds of Love, however, which establishes the album as an exceptional creation of 20th-century art. ‘The Ninth Wave’ is a suite of seven songs that draws its title from Tennyson’s poem ‘Idylls of the King: The Coming of Arthur’: “Wave after wave, each mightier than the last, Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep And full of voices, slowly rose and plunged Roaring, and all the wave was in a flame…” Kate imagines herself as a sailor, ship-wrecked and alone. She slips into a hypothermia-induced limbo, caught between wakefulness and sleep (in the song ‘And Dream of Sheep’). Nightmares, memories and visions distort her consciousness to the point where she cannot distinguish between reality and illusion. Is she skating, or trapped (‘Under Ice’)? During her hallucinations, she sees herself in a previous life as a witch on trial (‘Waking the Witch’). She is found guilty and visualises herself burning. Her spirit leaves her body and visits her family (‘Watching You Without Me’). Then her future-self confronts her present-being and begs her to stay alive (‘Jig of Life’). A rescue team reaches her just as her lifeforce drifts heavenwards (‘Hello Earth’). And, in the sublime finale (‘The Morning Fog’), flesh and spirit are reunited and she expresses her profound love for her family.

When composing her music, Kate always takes inspiration from literature, film and, strikingly, given how resolutely she guards her privacy, her family. Hounds of Love is no exception. The voices of her mum, dad and brothers feature in ‘Under Ice’. The track ‘Jig of Life’, written in Ireland, climaxes with a Yeats-inspired poem narrated by her brother John, and is supported by the fiddles, bodhrans, pipes and whistles she heard there.

The choral section of ‘Hello Earth’ is taken from a Georgian folk song which she heard on the soundtrack of Werner Herzog’s 1979 film Nosferatu. ‘The Ninth Wave’ – that second act – is a singular musical odyssey and remains unmatched by any other recording artist. Hounds of Love – the album as a whole – was written and produced by Kate, as are all her albums.

Her previous work had been commercially successful, but, up until then, she hadn’t been universally celebrated by serious – well, male – music critics, who complained that “…her records smell of tarot cards, kitchen curtains and lavender pillows”. Hounds of Love changed that. Kate’s steadfast determination to create music only on her own terms is, even to this day, disconcertingly rare for a female artist.

And all the rest? Madonna has gradually extinguished the fire she once ignited inside of me. Whitney became a prisoner to, and victim of, her divine vocal talent. The only other female artist to touch my soul in subsequent years was Amy Winehouse – again consumed, and ultimately destroyed, by the fame she once desperately sought. Yet Kate Bush continues to create art the only way she knows how to – truthfully.

Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill  

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John Tiffany

John Tiffany is a theatre director. He has directed productions including ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’, ‘Black Watch’ and ‘Once’.