In the summer of 1985 Kate Bush’s name had been out of the limelight for a few years; her previous album, namely 1982’s ‘The Dreaming’, had not been a commercial success, causing her to retreat into her own creativity. Her break from the public eye was to come to a dramatic end with the release of ‘Hounds of Love’ that September.
The record was Bush’s fifth album and, to this day, many of her fans consider it to be her best. The album became Bush’s best selling studio album, selling over a million copies worldwide by 1998 and being certified double platinum in the UK the same year.
Critical acclaim has also followed this album throughout its life. It was nominated for 3 awards at the 1986 Brit Awards and, in 2020, was named by Rolling Stone magazine as the 68th greatest albums of all time.
So, what makes this album so good? Well, I think its mastery starts with its production. Bush started work on the album over 18 months before its release, in January of 1985. She was able to further experiment with the FairLight Synthesiser (brought into the mainstream by Peter Gabriel, whom she would later collaborate with) which, crucially, allowed her to create sounds she had not been able to before. Although the FairLight system made an appearance on her aforementioned previous album, this record marks the point at which Bush commits to using it to mould the DNA of her sound.
The technological advances of the time not only allowed her to create different sounds, but they completely removed the need for a band. In fact she was so driven by her new found ability to work and experiment entirely on her own, that she built a 24-track studio behind a barn near her home, thus allowing her to live inside of this album right from the word go. I think it’s the nature of the way the album was produced that truly makes it the most solo of solo records.
The record is also incredibly well developed thematically. Bush dives deep into her own artistic identity and produces a masterclass in musical poetry. The album itself is an album of two halves; the first side features the more pop inspired sounds while the second side (the ninth wave) features an experimental avant-garde sonic makeup which pushes the record deep into the realms of the progressive genre. The progressive nature of the ninth wave shines through in its lyrical themes; the tracks are bound together by the narrative of a group of people who are thrown over board and drown at sea. The lyrics depict the fear and loneliness felt by the characters and assess the dangers of one’s imagination. The horror and desperation felt by Bush’s characters is best showcased on tracks like ‘Waking the Witch’ and ‘Under Ice’ which convey the story with distinctly graspable emotion.
As mentioned above, the bulk of the album’s sonic makeup comes from Bush’s experimentation with digital sounds. She uses them to craft an intoxicating, consuming sound, which gives the record a kind of dream like status. To my mind, the avant-garde complexity of the progressive themes on the album are further complimented by the progressive nature of its sound.
The experimental side of the album is best showcased in ‘The Ninth Wave’. Due to its avant-garde complexities, it is hard to get on with on the first few listens, as is often the case with progressive music. Its artistic value, however, can’t be understated. Progressive music is often viewed as more pretentious than it is authentic, which is a view I can understand, but this album goes a long way in presenting the genre as capable of being something of significance to a wider, rather than a niche, audience.
The record is not devoid of more traditional sounds and instrumentation. Traditional Irish instruments, for example, are used heavily on tracks like ‘Jig of Life’ and ‘Hounds of love’ and the digital sounds Bush creates to give the record its progressive feel are also used to craft more accessible pop songs on the first side of the album. Bush uses the Fairlight to create hollow, driving drum sounds that give the general sound of side A a pop infused feel. These sounds are, in many ways, the opposite of those present on the album’s B side. No where is Bush’s pop sound more evident than on the album’s opener, ‘Running Up That Hill (a deal with god)’ which I feel encapsulates what Bush is achieving in terms of her more pop focussed style.
On the whole I think Bush achieves a lot with this record. It provides her with her most poignant stamp on modern music history, successfully blending a number of themes and sounds to mould her individual and complex sound. It’s not her only record that blends figurative poetry with experimental music, but I feel this album showcases her artistic mastery at its most developed. It’s the poetic and musical complexity of the album that makes it so accomplished and I feel that, if there’s one Kate Bush album you need ti listen to, it’s this one.