The Landmark Feminine Vision of “Hounds of Love”

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.

Old People Make Good Music Too

It’s no secret that music culture is obsessed with youth: blogs and review sites often center around “break-out” or “rising” artists and are usually targeting a young, often college-aged demographic of hip listeners. Music is often linked to image and coolness, and young people are decidedly better-looking and cooler than old people. This is accompanied by a similar mini-backlash against older artists, who are frequently dismissed as something like “dad rock” or have their current work ignored in favor of their classics from when they were the young people being covered by the press and listened to by the cool kids.

When I made my albums of the decade list a few weeks ago, I noticed that the top of the list was dominated by older, more experienced artists. PJ Harvey is 45, Fiona Apple is 37 and has been releasing music since she was 19, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine is 52, Björk is 49, Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses is 48, Kate Bush is 56, Mary Timony of Ex Hex and Wild Flag is 44. This wasn’t a conscious attempt to zig while everyone else zags — they were just the albums I liked the most from the last five years.

The common theme with all these artists is that they’ve been around for awhile. Most of them have released several albums worth of material, often fading in and out of popularity as they continued to follow their various muses. There is also a general perception with all of them that they’ve already “peaked” with albums they made when they were younger. Their albums on my list all were well-reviewed, but they weren’t appearing on the cover of magazines or whatever the equivalent of that is now in 2015. The statement my list ends up making (largely unintentionally) is that these artists still have something to say in their work, and it’s often overlooked in favor of less interesting bands that either drive more traffic to a website or can be built by whoever is hyping them.

A lot of this feeling comes from my own background as a self-proclaimed “wannabe writer.” At age 25 now, I’ve yet to feel like I have any sort of deep perspective or statement to make in anything I write, because I just haven’t lived enough — I’m still trying to figure everything out. When I write, it’s in an effort to improve my craft, and I feel with each essay or story (regardless of quality) I learn something and get better. I don’t think writing random blog posts is directly comparable to making music, but the general concept of honing the craft and constantly improving is something I think often holds.

Nearly all the albums at the top of my list had that feeling in them: they were works that the artists had been working towards for several years, and often synthesized elements of their earlier work in a satisfying way. Let England Shake tied together so much of PJ Harvey’s music, and felt like something only an experienced artist who knows exactly what she’s doing could make. The Idler Wheel… was Fiona Apple’s most confident album, a distillation of what has made her such a popular musician. M B V  was the result of an over 20 year odyssey, and drew on both My Bloody Valentine’s past while also hinting at their potential future. I’ve written enough about Vulnicura, but it goes without saying that a much younger artist couldn’t have made an album that was drawing from years of love and heartbreak.

Purgatory/Paradise is an album that was almost entirely ignored, but was really ambitious, taking Throwing Muses’ classic sound, smashing it up, and re-imagining it. Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow had incredibly deep storytelling, and was a vastly uncool piano-based album with songs that stretched past 10 minutes in length. It was a real crafted work made by someone who takes their art seriously and is good at it. Maybe the most interesting example is Mary Timony/Ex Hex: it was my favorite album of 2014, in part because I felt it sounded young, even though Timony is in her mid-40s. It was an energetic, fun rock album, made by someone who simply knows how to write a great song, a case of an older artist beating the youngsters at their own game.

My appreciation for these albums is part of a type of fandom that I fear is getting less common, which is being a huge fan of an individual artist and following them on their journey from album to album. I always see their careers as being like a story, and albums like these as compelling chapters in them. As the internet bombards listeners with seemingly infinite music and new artists keep being recycled to feed the hype machine, this context starts to get lost — it stops being about the artists and starts being more about whatever sells day-to-day. Each album is just used to feed discussion for a day or a week (if it’s good) and then is forgotten about because something else comes along so quickly.

It is hard to make this sort of argument without sounding jaded at “the kids these days,” and taken too far it can get into the absurd Rolling Stone territory where dinosaur rockers consistently crap out “five star albums” into their 90s. But I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen a young band get talked up, only to instantly recognize that it has nearly nothing to do with the music — it’s either because they look like a cool band or they fit whatever story a site is trying to sell. They make the “albums of the year” list once, then are forgotten about two albums later, because some other young band has taken their place.

All of this has instilled me with a lot of skepticism for any young hyped-up band, and an appreciation for artists who have proven they make music that can endure. Youth is often exciting, but in terms of actual artistic statements or expression, it’s hard to buy that so many people my age are actually making worthwhile, memorable work. Sure, there’s prodigies like PJ Harvey, who made Rid of Me when she was 24, but that’s not normal. There’s something to be said for the artists who have been honing their craft for years or even decades, like PJ Harvey now, and are still creating music that has real thought and feeling in it.

Single-Song Obsessions: Kate Bush — “Misty”

In our current age of ADD, I’ve been somewhat blessed with an extremely long attention span. Unfortunately, I don’t really use it to do anything productive, but it has given me a special love for long songs — really long songs. Whenever I see an album with a song over ten minutes long, I get really excited.

Long songs are special little nuggets in the music world, especially these days when most bands are focused on trying to create the next great three-minute pop single that can be added to someone’s “workin’ out” playlist on their iPod shuffle. They allow so many more possibilities for storytelling and showcases of musical skill. Of course, they also require a lot of ambition and are difficult to pull off effectively, which is why most bands steer clear of them.

My favorite recent use of long songs is easily Kate Bush’s late-2011 album 50 Words for Snow (which I stupidly left off my “best albums of 2011” list, something that still eats at me even though nobody else cares). It’s a delight for long song aficionados, with just seven songs that add up to a 65-minute run time — the shortest song is album closer “Among Angels” which is 6:49. The longest is “Misty”, which is 13:32.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also my favorite song on the album. In fact, it could be said that I am somewhat obsessed with “Misty” — not just the song itself, but all of the artistic qualities it represents. After the album came out, I excitedly told everyone about how it had a “13-minute song about falling in love with a snowman.” Because who makes a 13-minute song about falling in love with a snowman? Why would anyone do that? And how could it possibly be good?

Perhaps the only person in the world who could do it or would do it is Kate Bush, who in her 30+ year career has consistently pushed the boundaries of art and has an affinity for oddball subject matter. A very underrated trait among great artists, especially ones I admire, is the willingness to go through with ideas that seem insane on the surface. As someone who has a lot of half-finished posts sitting in my drafts folder on this blog, I feel a lot of respect towards Bush, who sat down at her piano and hammered this song out because she knew it would be good. I imagine her picking up the phone during the writing process and having to tell whoever called “I can’t speak right now. I’m working on my song about loving a snowman.” She probably put off other real-life responsibilities while writing her snowman song, confident that people would want to listen to it when it was finished. To me, that is pretty much the definition of an artist.

Now, when you read that the song is about falling in love with a snowman, you probably figured “oh, it’s a metaphor for being with a cold, distant lover or something.” Nope. Another reason why this song is great is that Bush attacks the subject matter head-on instead of using bland, figurative language. Above a recurring piano figure, she recounts building the snowman, then how the snowman ends up in her bed.

Unfortunately, like all one-night affairs with snowmen, Bush’s tryst was doomed to end in heartbreak. “I can feel him melting in my hand,” she laments, knowing that you only have a limited amount of time to be with a snowman. At about the 8-minute mark, a guitar and some light strings join the piano as the song picks up in tempo. “I can’t find him… the sheets are soaking,” Bush sings, her voice full of very real yearning. The seriousness with which Bush sings the song is just another way that I think she’s in on the “joke” and is aware of the song’s dark comedy and absurdity.

But even though this song is absurd, it has a genuine emotional impact. Once you let the initial concept sink in (and since the song is so long, it will if you have the patience), it becomes a pretty stirring tale of two star-crossed lovers who obviously can never have a future. She was the good girl from the high-class family who wanted the best things in life. He was three balls of snow stacked on top of each other with a mouth full of dead leaves. You can see why it would never work out.

“Misty” is probably not a song that everyone will enjoy — you have to have patience and a tolerance for some weirdness. But when it comes to unabashed love songs, I’ll take this one over just about anything from the last few years, especially the little three-minute radio songs. It’s an absolutely unique song by an artist who clearly doesn’t think like everyone else.

2011: A Retrospective and Look at the Future

As the year comes to an end, I thought it’d be fitting to take a look back at some of the events and debates that stood out for me in the last year.

The death of Trish Keenan

Most of the year-end “in memoriams” will be focused on Amy Winehouse, but no musician death affected me this year like Trish Keenan’s, who died on January 14th of pneumonia at age 42. Keenan fronted the UK dream pop group Broadcast, who, while consistently admired, never really got the level of popularity and acclaim that I felt they deserved. They quietly made some of the most beautiful and original music of the last decade, drawing from their 60’s inspirations like the United States of America and obscure foreign soundtracks to create something completely new.  At the center of their sometimes dark, psychedelic sounds was Trish and her warm vocals, which ensured that there was always a heart at the core of their music.

Trish’s death struck me because of how unfair it was for such an amazing singer to die of something like pneumonia, and because her death seemed to be met with relative shrugs or lack of acknowledgement from a lot of places. Considering her band was responsible for some of my favorite music ever, it was depressing to see it all get glanced over, or to see the band’s plays spike on before settling back down to normal just a couple weeks later. Her death didn’t just remind me of how life can seemingly end at any moment, but also the inherent sadness that comes with loving a band that nobody else seems to care about.

I named my blog after their debut album in tribute (and because it’s a great name for a music blog anyways), and I’ll continue to preach the greatness of Broadcast everywhere, even if I just get met with shrugs.

The year of “boring”

The biggest ongoing debate in music this year seemed to surround one word: “boring.” Is music today boring? What music is boring? What does boring actually mean in the context of music?

For me, this has been a subject of my attention for a couple years, when I noticed that local indie radio station The Current was playing a lot of music that bored the hell out of me (typically mopey folk). But the issue really came to a head this year when widely celebrated albums by the likes of Bon Iver, James Blake, and Fleet Foxes were branded as “boring” by many people (including me).

One of my favorite music writers, Steven Hyden, wrote an essay about the topic for The AV Club, where he criticized those that lazily use the word “boring” to describe music. I agree with some of what he says, but disagree with some of it as well. For one thing, I don’t think people that call music “boring” are wearing it with a badge of honor, but instead are simply disappointed at the direction music has taken.

But I agree that the word “boring” is dumb to use for music, which is why I’ve struggled a lot with this issue in 2011. Because, as much as I hate saying it, a lot of music this year really was boring. It’s not just that the sound of a lot of these artists is so low-key and passive, but there’s also the sense that it’s all been done before.  More than ever before, a lot of the most acclaimed music this year seemed to be stuck in the past, either fixated on reviving some trend (like the whole 80’s easy listening revival done by artists like Bon Iver and Destroyer that still completely baffles me) or recalling a specific sound and era. Even as I enjoyed some of the music by these revivalists, I still found it frustrating that so many seemed to be swimming in their own influences instead of making something we haven’t heard before.

Lame indie kids schooled by female veterans

While the whole boring music thing was happening, with most of it propagated by the same types of male artists that have always dominated indie music, an interesting trend for me emerged this year: A whole bunch of female artists returned from long layoffs and made some of the best, most original music of 2011.

It started in February when PJ Harvey released Let England Shake, her first solo album since 2007’s White Chalk and likely her best in over a decade. Like all PJ Harvey albums, it was an original, literate piece of work, but it also benefited from a broader scope as her look at war and her homeland felt bold and provocative when so much music this year felt lifeless and limp.  Her contemporary in original female songwriting, Björk, also returned with her first new music since 2007 with the dazzling multimedia Biophilia project. Arguably Biophilia’s music didn’t live up to its ambitious iPad app packaging, gravity-based instruments, science classes, and all the other crazy stuff Björk was up to this year, but it reminded me of how refreshing it is to see an artist actually try something new and attempt to take music somewhere it hasn’t been before.

Elsewhere, all-female supergroup Wild Flag, which included Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of the dearly departed Sleater-Kinney, released what I thought was the year’s best rock album in September. For Brownstein, who has spent the last few years blogging for NPR and appearing on Portlandia,  it was her first recorded music since that band’s 2005 album The Woods. Wild Flag also included Mary Timony who had been relatively under the radar since her mid-90’s work with Helium.  For members with such pedigrees, their debut album was wonderfully unpretentious, a celebration of the greatness of rock music coming at a time when we need it most.

The reclusive Kate Bush even came back with 50 Words for Snow, her first new music since 2005’s Aerial. With its seven songs clocking in at a whopping 65 minutes, Bush’s album was an ambitious work that was remarkably distant from any sort of current indie trends.  Its lengthy songs never wear out their welcome and showcase Bush’s knack for quirky storytelling. The song lengths became an issue for me as a couple songs I didn’t like as much took up about 1/3 of the album, but it also had some of my favorite songs of the year, especially the 13 minute “Misty” about Bush falling in love with a snowman and “Wild Man,” her ode to the yeti.

So what does it say about music that the most ambitious, thought-provoking music this year was made by females in their late 30-50’s?  I’m not really sure, but I do think today’s entitled indie youngsters could learn a thing or two from the artists that helped make indie music what it is.

(These veterans were joined by up-and-comers like St. Vincent, EMA, Tune-Yards, Eleanor Friedberger, etc.  Overall, I think this was probably the strongest year for female artists in a long time.)

Looking forward to 2012

When I started this blog because I was bored over the summer, I figured it would be a fun challenge for myself, but one that few other people would care about.  For the most part I think that’s still true, but I’ve had more activity than I was expecting on it and have already learned a lot (such as that putting pictures of Björk in your posts is a great way to get a lot of google images hits).  I’ve gained a lot of respect for websites I used to make fun of all the time now that I know how difficult it is to write about something so subjective.

For the next year, my goal is to listen and write fairly prolifically, with more focus on new music than I had in the past year.  Hopefully that will lead to more people reading and taking an interest in the blog, and who knows what happens from there.  I’m thankful to anyone who read or took an interest in my writing this last year, and hope you stay on board through 2012.  This blog wouldn’t be possible without you.  Well, actually it would be, but it’d be a lot sadder than it already is.