One of the words I’ve become most wary of as a dude writer is “badass.” It was one I used a lot to compliment women musicians who made heavy guitar-driven rock music — the idea was that they were beating the men at their own game. The problem with this is that it framed them in comparison to men, evaluating them based on how they fit into a certain masculine ideal of rock music that existed in my head.
I had a major “badass” phase where I loved artists like PJ Harvey, Karen O, Alison Mosshart of The Kills, and Sleater-Kinney, who all made aggressive rock music. These are all artists I still like to varying degrees (Harvey in particular subverted and transcended the idea of guitar rock), but my love for them was also based on insecurity: their badassness (badassitude?) let me listen to women singers without feeling like I was enjoying “girl stuff.” I was so drawn to the idea of women beating men at their own game of traditional rock music that I overlooked artists like Kate Bush who were playing a different game entirely.
Bush’s 1985 masterpiece Hounds of Love is one I’ve wanted to write about for awhile because it changed how I perceive music. In my personal canon, the enduring legacy of this album is that it is not “badass” at all. It is distinctly, uncompromisingly feminine and doesn’t fit into any male-established framework of what rock music should be. This made it more difficult for me to initially latch onto than my other all-time favorite albums. It required me to remove those sexist male blinders and rewire the whole way I was consuming and interpreting music. Not that I’m perfect in that regard now, but this is one of the albums that pushed me out of my comfort zone and deepened my perspective.
There aren’t many albums that feel like they emerged from the aether with no antecedents, but Hounds of Love has few easy comparisons to anything that came before it. Even Bush’s previous albums don’t quite have the same feeling for me; I’ve struggled to get into The Dreaming, which is so busy and ambitious that it’s like a code I’ve never been able to crack, and I find songs she made at a very young age like “Wuthering Heights” to be too precocious. These were criticisms Bush faced at the time, and Hounds of Love is where she harnessed her boundless imagination and talent to make her most cohesive and listenable album. It could almost be described as restraint if this wasn’t still such an audacious work.
Hounds of Love is split into two parts: the first half is a murderer’s row of some of the most forward-thinking and creative rock/pop singles ever recorded; the second half is a suite of conceptually linked experimental songs (dubbed “The Ninth Wave”) about being lost at sea and the ephemeral, sometimes frightening nature of dreams. Bush has resisted touring forever, instead preferring to make intricate, complex studio creations that aren’t weighed down by expectations of live performance. Her production on Hounds of Love is fittingly detailed and obsessive, with a dense combination of synths and strings on most songs.
The opener, “Running Up That Hill,” is one of Bush’s most iconic songs, yet I often think it’s one of the weakest parts of this album — not because it isn’t great, but because Hounds of Love is at a level that so few artists have reached. It still serves as a useful introduction to this album and shows how Bush approaches making music in a different way. While the badass music I loved was often about sounding cool and tough, Bush’s performance embraces traditionally feminine conceits: emotion, drama, and fragility.
Bush is known for making quirky music with odd storytelling, and it only works because of her conviction. She pours herself into these songs, committing to everything she does with an intense focus. It’s heard in her voice, a rich soprano that lends itself to dramatic flourishes, and in her arrangements, which have a level of detail and thought that speaks to the effort she puts in bringing what’s in her mind to life. I always love artists who seem almost maniacally dedicated to their craft, and Bush is one of the forbearers of that type of music.
The album’s fifth track, “Cloudbusting,” is where Bush shows her ability to tell a story befitting of a novel in a five-minute pop song. Inspired by Wilhelm Reich and his fantastical pseudo-scientific “cloudbuster” machines that promised to bring rain, Bush sings from the perspective of his young son, Peter, who witnesses his dad get in trouble with the government for his experiments. She inhabits Peter and his childlike innocence — especially his steadfast belief that “something good is going to happen.” The repetitive string arrangement also has that sense of young wonder and naiveté, which is contrasted with the ominous imagery of the government “in their big black car.” Like all great storytellers, Bush finds the universal truth in this strange tale and its characters, expressing that moment all of us have as kids when we realize that the adults we look up to are flawed.
“Cloudbusting” is one of my favorite songs and it crystallized what this album means to me. Bush singing from the perspective of a boy and conveying those universal feelings is where I realized this isn’t “girl stuff.” It’s “human stuff.” The empathy and humanity in her music is something I can connect with beyond just appreciating her artistry, and I think it’s what makes her an artist with a large following for someone who makes very strange music.
As good as the album’s singles are (the title track and “The Big Sky” are also classics), “The Ninth Wave” is where Bush shows a different kind of genius. Together, the last seven songs form one story of a woman who is lost at sea and trying to find her way home. She brings out the entire kitchen sink of vocal and production techniques to make this story come to life, though it starts out on a simple note with “Of Dream and Sheep,” a piano-driven lullaby that describes the protagonist being lost and wishing for sleep.
From there, things get weird in a hurry. As the protagonist falls asleep (or possibly hallucinates),”Under Ice” and “Waking the Witch” show Bush twisting her sound into something frightening and strange. The latter sounds like a fever dream; Bush includes some other voices and alters her own to convey the illogical, twisted nature of weird dreams and the feeling of your own mind turning against itself. It’s the hardest song on the album to listen to, which might also make it the most effective.
Bush’s natural tendency towards musical exploration really works in “The Ninth Wave” because all the different styles and elements give it that scattered dream logic. The woozy pop of “Watching You Without Me” dissolves into scary nonsense at the end, as if the listener is being woken up abruptly. It’s followed by an Irish jig, “Jig of Life,” which sounds out of place with the rest of the album, but I think that’s what she was going for — dreams are often inexplicable and sometimes our brain wants to hear a fiddle for some reason.
Eventually, the protagonist gets rescued on “Hello Earth” and on the album closer “The Morning Fog,” awakens to a brand new day with a new lease on life and a sense of optimism. That song represents a return to normalcy in the lyrics, but also in the music, as it’s more in line with the pop style of the first half of the album. The production and vocal performance by Bush makes it sound like when you first wake up in the morning after a night of dreaming and aren’t exactly sure where you are.
The idea of “influence” in music is often described in a linear sense where one artist directly inspires another. I’ve often found that to be overly simplistic, and it doesn’t really capture the impact Hounds of Love has had, even on artists who aren’t necessarily fans of it. In my head, I think of it more like a door being opened. The existence of this album established a new framework for music that was feminine, musically adventurous, and focused on storytelling.
A lot of artists I love walked through that doorway, even if they didn’t know who opened it, and there are days where it feels like everything I’m listening to is indebted to Hounds of Love. I roll my eyes when every creative woman musician gets compared to Kate Bush, but it’s also easy to see why it happens. This album cast such a long shadow and was ahead of its time in so many ways that its impact feels biblical.