Hounds of Love
In the mid-1980s, Terry Wogan had an early evening chat show on BBC. It usually featured a musical act halfway through, someone promoting a new album or single. On one occasion, Kate Bush appeared, performing a single from Hounds of Love, her first album for three years. Afterwards, the good Wogan quipped, ‘Kate Bush, and how very ephemeral she is.’ God love him, it wasn’t what he meant to say. I was no scholar (far from it: I was on my way to a D-grade in Intermediate Certificate English), but I knew that what he must have intended was ‘ethereal’. It’s the epithet most people would choose for Kate Bush – back then or now. (For the record, Our Terry also introduced a sporting celebrity of the day as ‘the champion’s people’, so the man clearly had form.)
At the time Hounds of Love was released in 1985, I was fourteen years old and not much interested in Kate Bush. I had enjoyed her hit singles like Wuthering Heights and Babooshka, but she was just another pop star to me then. It was only some years later when I’d left home for college that I fell under the bewitching charm of the Hounds of Love album. In those days of course, albums were split into two sides; you had to turn over a vinyl disc or tape by hand. My favourite side of Hounds of Love was Side 2, a suite of interlinked songs entitled The Ninth Wave. I found that listening to it on my own in a darkened room was like climbing inside someone else’s dream. While my better-heeled housemates were out carousing, I often repaired to my private quarters with my tape cued for Side 2, joking that I was off to bed with Kate Bush – in a manner of speaking.
(By the way, Side 1 of Hounds of Love is perfect pop: four hit singles plus the melancholy, almost mournful, Mother Stands For Comfort. Ms Bush is on tip-top form on the whole album, an album which is without a solitary weak track. To my ears, Side 1 is day and Side 2 night.)
There have been other renderings of dream worlds: James Joyce’s unreadable Finnegans Wake (1939) and Christopher Nolan’s action-packed Inception (2010) to name but two; for me however, nothing quite captures the essence of a dream like The Ninth Wave. (Coincidentally, the last album Kate Bush released before Hounds of Love was called The Dreaming .) How was this underside of consciousness realized so credibly? What are its elusive components?
Like most dreams, The Ninth Wave is all about deep-seated feelings that find expression through fantasy; as is often the case in dreams, the fantasy is quite dark. The songs that constitute this suite take the listener on a journey through psychological states from the beginning of sleep back to the light of day. The evocation of atmosphere is achieved flawlessly and as the tracks wander into one another, they often hark back to their predecessors, thereby creating a thread of continuity. Moods change but the dreamer remains the same. The only song of day on The Ninth Wave is at the end, The Morning Fog, a cheerful awareness of love and security after all the emotional terrain passed through en route to sunrise.
The Ninth Wave opens with And Dream of Sheep, a song suggestive of lonesome longing:
If they find me racing white horses, they’ll not take me for a buoy.
Let me be weak, let me sleep and dream of sheep.
By themselves, these lyrics appear surreal but in the song, they sound like a revelation of truth – the kind of meaning you might receive in a dream and then dwell on after waking. Kate Bush has a thespian quality, an ability to enter into the song’s spirit, to deliver its mood directly into the heart of the listener. There is a natural sense of drama about her performance. The other prime factor here is the spare arrangement of the song plus some well-timed sound effects. It’s an eerie experience, but irresistible.
The tone goes from eerie to ominous in the next track, Under Ice, where a girl skating on a frozen river sees something moving beneath her. It’s unexpected and threatening – and turns out to be the girl herself. The girl’s fear and the sorrow of her banished self which wants only to break through from underneath, are well captured by the versatility of the vocals. Cellos complete this unsettling psychological drama.
The theme of the denied presence is continued in the following two tracks, Waking the Witch and Watching You Without Me. Waking the Witch is situated in childhood: a young girl overwhelmed and confused by adult voices of authority (and by one particularly monstrous voice which pronounces guilt); her own voice is an intermittent flicker, struggling to be heard. Watching You Without Me is more adult, a ghostly presence talking to her partner who cannot see or hear her. As the song nears its conclusion, the flickering voice from the previous track is briefly reprised. Such experiences have a universal element to them but the expression here is wholly original. Kate Bush’s access to childhood imagination combined with her musicianship gives her work a unique flavour and colour. Speaking for herself in her own particular way, she says something for us all.
Jig of Life, featuring the cream of Planxty (Donal Lunny and Liam O’Flynn), alters the tone and mood significantly. This is a connection with ancestry, a vision of the self as a sequence in a pattern, something that contains what went before. However much we may like to think of ourselves as something special, as one-offs, it’s never quite the truth:
Hello old Lady, I know your face well…
… She says… I’ll be sitting in your mirror…
Never, never say goodbye to my part of your life…
She said c’mon let me live, she said c’mon let me live girl.
This moment in time, it doesn’t belong to you,
It belongs to me and to your little boy and to your little girl…
The sense of the supernatural isn’t new at this point in the album but here there is nothing disturbing about it, for Jig of Life is as its title suggests, a stormy, full-blooded celebration, one of interconnectedness. Other voices have struggled for attention in previous songs; here is one (i.e. the narrator’s ancestor) determined to seize its moment. This presence is too full of energy and joy to be denied. In terms of the narrative created by the previous tracks, Jig of Life rouses and rescues the subject (and therefore the listener) from what might have been an overbearing sense of isolation. In this way, The Ninth Wave can be said to be always going somewhere; it is never without direction.
The penultimate Hello Earth is the end of the dream, and features a choir called The Richard Hickox Singers. As with all the other vocal special effects used on The Ninth Wave, the part played by this choir is essential to the overall impact of the song, which in this case is one of religious awe: human in the face of the numinous. It’s a suitably spine-tingling way to round off the odyssey before we awaken to The Morning Fog.
Late last year, I moved into a 19th-century apartment block in Dublin’s south inner city. While decorating my new flat, I accidentally knocked the air vent cover off my bedroom wall, revealing a fairly sizeable shaft. I wondered had I stumbled upon a portal just like the one John Cusack’s character discovered in Being John Malkovich. In an Irish context, where would this one lead me, or to whom? Into the mind of a Fine Gael cabinet minister such as Richard Bruton perhaps, or maybe even a successful GAA coach like Brian Cody? Would I be spat out onto the Red Cow interchange afterwards? It was a beguiling, tempting opportunity. Then I thought of Housekeeping and Hounds of Love. ‘You have your portals,’ I told myself. ‘You have no need of this sorcery and all the trouble that goes with it.’ I got out the superglue and the screwdriver and stuck the air vent cover fast to the wall.