Kate Bush is arguably the most gifted songwriter that the UK has produced in the last 50 years and Hounds of Love is the brilliant diamond that sits at the centre of one of the most glittering back catalogues produced by any artist. The impact of the Netflix show Stranger Things thrusting the song ‘Running Up that Hill (A Deal with God)’ as the cultural & emotional centerpiece of season 4, Kate Bush has been exposed to a generation who may otherwise not have listened to her, in a way many artists can merely dream of. Therefore there is no better time than now to revisit what I consider to be the greatest album of all time by a female singer-songwriter.
She began writing songs at the young age of 11 and was subsequently signed to EMI after her demo was produced with the assistance of non-other than Dave Gilmour (of Pink Floyd). Talk about a glowing endorsement for a young artist! Her debut album, The Kick Inside, was released in 1978 & contained the utterly mesmerising, majestic and quite frankly stunning ‘Wuthering Heights’, which topped the UK single charts for 4 weeks. This was her debut single and she was also the first female artist to achieve a UK number one with a self-written song. However to dismiss the album as merely a one-track wonder would be a criminal injustice to the rest of the album, go check it out, it’s an astonishing debut album, let alone one released by a 19-year-old at the time!
The expectations for Kate’s follow-up was understandably high, in comparison to The Kick Inside the follow-up Lionheart lacked the same impact, the album didn’t hit the dizzying heights of Wuthering Heights and didn’t contain also the depth that The Kick Inside contained, leaving Lionheart to feel like more of a weaker imitation of what came before. However what occurred surrounding the album was very important, Kate Bush had by then set up her own publishing and management company. Why is this important, well it meant that essentially Kate Bust had complete creative control and without this occurring we may very well not have the artist that is adored as she is today.
The next album Never for Ever is a clear demonstration of an artist being unshackled for the first time and pushing into the unknown. It is a fantastic album in its own right veering from the sing-along ‘Babooshka’, the prog rock ‘Egypt’, the delicate yet solemn ‘Army Dreamers’, before finishing with the colossal, terrifying and epic ‘Breathing’ (arguably her greatest song). The album debuted the top of the album charts, becoming her first album to hit top spot and she became the first female artist to enter the charts at number 1. Despite the incredibly strong material and also its charting success, Never for Ever is rarely talked about as a classic album and does not get the love and recognition it deserves. So how was this followed up, with the most creative but also inaccessible album of her career, The Dreaming. Upon the album’s release it was greeted with a mixed reception by critics. There was no hit singles, nothing for the listener to immediately grab hold of, instead it is an album of dense soundscapes with storytelling and the most diverse & obscure collection of songs you could expect to hear. The Dreaming is an experience unlike any other album released by such a mainstream artist, however it left Kate Bush’s popularity certainly with mainstream press dwindling and many questions over Kate being a spent musical force.
Any doubts of Kate Bush’s immersive talent to not only write intelligent, artistic and captivating music in conjunction with hook-laden melodies and a finely balanced commerciality for the mainstream audience, was blown away permanently with the 12 songs that comprises Hounds of Love. It is these 2 battling fronts of an artistic endeavour working so perfectly in balance with each other on Hounds of Love, that elevates the album from being a genre/era-defining album to being heralded as one of the great albums of all time.
Hounds of Love is the perfect LP experience, each half providing the listener with a distinctively different auditory experience, yet they complement each other beautifully.
Side A, contains 5 of the greatest pop songs ever written, each a bonafide classic, which caters for those who like to get that immediate pleasure response from music. That is not to say the songs are throw away in any form (far, far, far, far from it), the 5 songs comprising of Side A are so meaningful and deep, it is the outpouring of a soul.
The album opener, ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)’, requires no introduction and should be very familiar to any self-respecting music fan, the pounding drums driving the song forward continually while an ethereal synth gives the song (indeed the whole album) an otherworldly feel. Then you have that simplest of melody lines/hook that is utterly drenched in feeling, uplifting and tentative all at once. Finally, a vocal performance that is nothing short of monolithic, it is restraint (by Kate Bush standards) but impassioned and a chorus to simply make you feel that no matter the challenge life presents, it can be conquered. There is a very good reason why this song is so revered. If this song was on any other it would be undoubtedly the album’s highlight, however, there is one song that is arguably greater (I will come that song in due course).
Now I love the music in this album and know it like the back of my hand, but every time I listen to Hounds of Love there is always new things presenting itself, like any true classic album. For example take the rushing string section on the title track, ‘Hounds of Love’, which is accompanied by a soaring melody that subtly sits behind it, all the while being propelled forward by the massive sounding percussion. Or the funk bass line of ‘The Big Sky’ that manages to punch through a song that while seeming deceptively simple in its structure, actually has so many components and layers coming together and building upon each other into a cacophony of sheer unadulterated joy. It is a miracle alone that the song doesn’t descend into an incoherent mess, it is a testament again to Kate Bush’s writing that she balances it all to near perfection. The tempo then slows down with the beautiful, delicate yet quirky ‘Mother Stands for Comfort’. While not the most quoted or referenced song on the album, it offers a jazz esq bassline that is understated yet it is the song’s nucleus, allowing the song to breathe around it with its lounge piano, jarring percussion, quirky synth that (again) presents this intimate song as otherworldly.
‘Cloudbusting‘, the last song on Side A, is that song which contends & is arguably greater than ‘Running Up That Hill’. First the string section starts, pulsating in subtle urgency, then they are very shortly accompanied by the most wonderful vocal performance, words can not describe how beautiful it is, it is just euphoric, then again those pounding drums burst onto the scene adding unexpected tension, before settling into the songs rhythm and from here the song sails along like an auditory opium. The song becomes a dance of elegance and power, the earth and the sky, string sections propelling the song forward, Kate Bush’s vocals weaving like celestial deities prophesying of a brighter future, tribal & conventional drumming giving the song a grounded earthly feel while it reaches towards the stars.
The first 5 songs of Hounds of Love are so accessible, majestic and creative, there is no better collection of pop songs by an artist on a single album, which what makes Side B so unconventional, unexpected & daring.
Side B is ‘The Ninth Wave’, a mini conceptual masterpiece that sees Kate Bush exploring deeper into the realm of the avant-garde and plain of musical expression. Yet it is utterly musical and very listenable in turn with its storytelling of an individual lost out to sea, wrestling with their terrific imagination as they contemplate the uncertainty of their fate. The songs and music perfectly reflect this tale, gone are pop sensibilities of Side A and instead we have 7 songs that express the emotional experience of said tale. The music goes from hauntingly beautiful reflective passages of ‘And Dream of Sleep’, to the foreboding sense of impending doom in ‘Under Ice’, with its jarring string synth encapsulating the cold water’s deathly grasp. There is the ‘Jig of Life’ which takes Kate’s tendency to flirt with folk/traditional music and applies more contemporary songwriting to deliver a hopeful cry to live within the darkened surroundings. In comparison you have the theatrical musical horror that is ‘Waking The Witch’. ‘The Ninth Wave’ is a journey, ending with again another otherworldly piece of beauty that is equally harrowing, in ‘Hello Earth’, which contains a melody that subtly recalls that of ‘Running Up That Hill’, it’s a minute moment yet it really brings the whole of Hounds of Love together. Finally the album ends with ‘The Morning Fog’, musically buoyant which is in contrast to the lyrical ambiguity of the individuals fate.
The vocal performance on this album is truly the standout element of the album. In an age before auto-tuned vocals, everything had to be sung pitch perfect at the time of the albums making and considering the sheer range & depth of vocal tracks on Hounds of Love, Kate Bush’s vocal performance is simply mind-blowing. The vocals on Hounds of Love are in itself a labyrinth, to which this article could of entirely been focused upon. The way that Kate’s vocals twist and turn, it is essentially a musical instrument itself within the tapestry of the album. Not since Queen, has there been so much thought and attention to detail in how the vocal melodies intertwine with each other in order to tell each song’s or the album’s story. Kate’s remarkable range is captured perfectly in ‘The Ninth Wave’.
Hounds of Love cemented Kate Bush as a member of music royalty, permanently. It topped the UK charts, became the biggest-selling album of her career, was nominated at the Brit Awards for Best British Album along with ‘Running Up That Hill’ being nominated for Best British Single. Following on Kate Bush went on to produce a string of further classic albums, The Sensual World, The Red Shoes & Aerials.
However it’s on Hounds of Love that Kate Bust got the union of artistic expression, exploration, the unconventional and that of accessibility perfectly. It is a culmination of an artist’s journey of discovery, which started with remarkable potential displayed on The Kick Inside and growing into the fearless uncompromising force of nature shown on Hounds of Love. I implore you if you have not done so already to sit back, put on some headphones, close your eyes and allow yourself to be whisked away by an artist at the peak of their powers.