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Friday, June 15, 2012

This Woman's Work: the songs of Kate Bush, part two

This weekend sees a mass gathering of Kate Bush fans in London to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the extraordinarily passionate and unmatched fanzine Homeground. Although stuck in LA, I'll be there in spirit and wish Krys, Peter and Dave a most wonderful night. To console myself I decided to complete the second part of my trilogy on Kate's songwriting, beginning with her most controversial, but arguably her most stunning album, The Dreaming.

After co-producing her third album, Never For Ever, Kate dispensed with the training wheels and took sole control of her music. She had written around 20 songs for the album in her usual way, composing at the piano, but this time the composition would continue in the studio. Kate became fascinated by rhythm and for the first time this element rather than the melody would become the backbone of many of her songs. The first example of this came when EMI rushed a single release in 1981 to ensure Kate remained in the public eye. Sat In Your Lap was unlike anything that Kate had done before. The song bursts into life with an urgent, frenetic drum pattern that acts like a slap in the face. Then the song builds and Kate starts to intone her desire to grab life by the throat, if only she could be bothered. As the world rushes by her, driven by that insistent beat, Kate looks on in envy at those who she believes have everything dropped in their laps. There are three distinct voices on the verses, chorus and bridge, but they are three aspects of the same personality, pulling Kate in different directions. As well as the vocal experimentation, the song is full of little aural embellishments, often buried deep in the mix.  Sat In Your Lap was the first indication that Kate's music was evolving into something unrecognisable from what had come before.

Kate has often said that she hears the complete songs in her head when she writes them and then takes pains in the studio to try and exactly capture those sounds on her records. On The Dreaming Kate and her engineer would spend hours finding ingenious methods to create and record the music in her head. Although the songs were drafted on the piano, they would evolve as Kate added complex rhythms and layer upon layer of sounds to the mix. Kate had sometimes previously played with her voice, adopting accents and exploiting both ends of her extensive range, but on this album Kate's voice becomes the lead instrument. The register of the vocals was markedly lower than on her previous records and Kate found a distinct style to match the tone and subject of each song. My favourite song on the album is Suspended In Gaffa, which continues the theme of being held back from the things you want. Again Kate employs multiple vocal personalities to indicate her different states of mind. She wants it all, but is filled with self doubt that leaves her stuck, literally suspended in thick gaffer tape. The song has whimsy, but is also delightfully dark, like a Tim Burton movie. Like Sat In Your Lap it has a nervous energy about it and is not for the casual listener, but then little on The Dreaming is.

Kate's songs had always been stories, but now they were movies. The richness and depth of her music on The Dreaming meant that you needed to employ visual and aural senses to have a chance of absorbing its wonders. It is an album best heard in a darkened room and, as Kate instructs, played loud. Close your eyes and wallow in the three dimensional worlds that Kate created and be transported from a bank robbery in London to a jungle in Vietnam, then to the Outback and across the sea to Ireland. The ambition on this album is truly staggering. Clearly Kate's frustration at not having production control of her first albums drove her to ensure that this record would sound how she intended. The closing track of the album is another stunning soundscape.

Get Out Of My House is a disturbing tale of intrusion and violation, but it is not clear whether this is happening in the real world or in Kate's mind. Again multiple voices tug at the narrator, including a constantly cajoling echo and a slinky concierge guarding entry to the house. Kate said it was inspired by watching The Shining and it is indeed a horror movie crafted in song. The crafty use of melody and rhythm makes you feel as if you are running down hallways and into rooms looking for escape. In the end release comes through transformation into a donkey (no, I am not kidding), perhaps a Pinocchio reference from Kate, who is a big fan of the wooden boy. It is perhaps no wonder that EMI thought Kate had lost her mind when they heard the album. Given the countless hours Kate had spent in various studios completing it, they were also not thrilled at the enormous price tag. That few at the time appreciated the creativity and genius on display speaks more about the shock of the true Kate emerging unbound from the control of others and the narrow confines of a music industry that wants to milk a hit-making formula until it has more than run dry. Kate was disappointed that the album failed to gain much critical and commercial success, but she was undaunted in terms of pursuing her art. Rejecting EMI's requests for her to work with a producer again she retreated to her home and created her own studio so that she could work unmolested and unwatched.

Within the safety and comfort of her own studio Kate's muse could finally flow fully unhindered. Working with Del Palmer, her then partner, as engineer, she could experiment, tweak and mould without worrying about the suits. It was during this apparent hiatus that I fell completely under Kate's spell. As a young teenager with a job, I was finally able to buy my own music (which is where nearly all my earnings went) and it was Lionheart, Kate's romantic and theatrical second album that was one of my first purchases. After hearing it I immediately went out and bought The Dreaming and I don't think I have ever been more amazed by a record, before or since. It was so beyond anything I had heard and so compelling I sought out every album, single and video of Kate I could find. Thankfully as most thought her career over at that point, I acquired her complete works for a very reasonable price; a lucky break, as only a year later Kate would once again become the biggest thing in British pop.

The three years Kate took to record Hounds Of Love was her first extended absence since she had exploded onto the music scene. The ludicrous press stories that came out during this time (she had gained 100 lbs, she had become a mad recluse) were the early stirrings of the creation of the myth of Kate Bush that bares little resemblance to the real woman. Kate had the perfect weapon to silence her critics, both at the record company and in the press: she had made her masterpiece.

Where The Dreaming had been dark, intense and complex, Hounds Of Love was airier, confident and sophisticated. Kate's approach to composition was now holistic, beginning with the creation of melody and lyrics and ending with the final tweak of the mixing desk. Having pushed her creativity to its limits on her first production, Kate now learned the ability to balance and measure her impulses, allowing easier entry into her songs before they offered up their layers of intricate detail. The album was two distinct halves, the first a series of unique short stories, the second a concept piece about a woman lost at sea, waiting in the waves for her rescuers, entitled The Ninth Wave.

The first half of the album feels like The Dreaming's older sibling, and contains some of Kate's best songs. Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) was the lead single and immediately proclaimed that Kate was back in a big way. Again it was the rhythms that would drive many of the songs on the album and Kate created a hypnotic backbeat that powers Running Up That Hill, on which she layers multiple instruments and vocals, but they are used sparingly, creating space around the lead vocal. Kate's lyrical style had also started to evolve; she approaches the subject more obliquely, suggesting the story rather than telling it. The theme of understanding relationships from the other person's view, particularly when the differences are linked to gender, is one she would mine several more times, though she did it best here. What better way than literally changing places with another person to enable them to see your point of view? Running Up That Hill was a huge hit and has become one of Kate's most covered songs, including a Gothic reading by Placebo and a gentle acoustic take by Will Young. It is undoubtedly a classic song and even Kate, who is always hyper-critical of her past work, heard it recently and thought it stood up pretty well.

The other standout track is Cloudbusting, a musical biopic of the psychoanalyst Willhelm Reich, told through the eyes of his son. Kate's major achievement here is telling such a complex story in a five minute pop song, to explore it fully would take its own blog (hmmm...). Rhythm again is the anchor of the track, this time it is a military march that grows more insistent as the song progresses. Kate has often included gorgeous string arrangements on her tracks and the one here is among the most beautiful and stirring. In musical terms, Cloudbusting is Kate's most accomplished work, there is so much depth to the arrangement that it is still offering up new surprises to my ears over a quarter of century later. The extended version of the song released on 12" exposes some of this intricate layering and turns it into a virtual symphony. To appreciate the level Kate's artistry reached on this album, consider what Cloudbusting might sound like if her studio time had been limited or (shudder) Andrew Powell had produced it.

In the mid-1980s the concept album was a hoary staple of prog rock, often identified with ponderous self indulgence by mostly stoned rockers. It was against this image that Kate's announcement that side two of her new album would be a concept piece was met, with most expecting wild experimentation that would make The Dreaming look like Bananarama. The resulting piece could not be further from such indulgence. The Ninth Wave is a set of seven movements that create a song-cycle. We begin with a woman floating, lost at sea, fighting to stay awake in the gentle piano ballad And Dream Of Sheep. This is a moment of comfort, being a traditional Kate piano ballad, before we are thrust into the reality of the situation as we journey into the woman's past in the menacing Under Ice. Here the woman sees herself skating, slowly realising that the body she sees floating under the ice is her. The repeating theme of the song slowly builds and Kate creates a creepy tension that is unleashed in a terrified scream at the song's close.

A good example of how Kate's writing was evolving beyond formal pop song structures is Waking The Witch, which sees the woman's struggle to survive played out as a witch trial. Kate employs guest voices and sound effects, like the helicopter sound lifted from Pink Floyd, to create a slice of pure theatre. The song works like a fever dream, pulling you one way then the other, without giving you the comfort of a chorus to cling to for escape. Within the freedom of a song-cycle, Kate was able to create a moment that did not need a resolution or totality, but would work to move her story along. By now the listener is really starting to fear for the poor woman, who you can almost feel being dragged deeper into the waves.

After a visit from her present and future selves, The Ninth Wave's most powerful moment comes on the haunting Hello Earth. This is the emotional climax of the whole piece, with the woman now seeming to come to peace with her predicament. While the song is quite traditional in structure, it employs a repeated theme of a monk-like chorus singing a lament that eventually takes over, creating an ethereal atmosphere. You are almost lulled to sleep by its beauty, suggesting the woman giving in to the cold wetness and slipping beneath the sea. Kate's was becoming as much a film director as a composer, only using sound rather than visuals as her medium. She was also willing to push herself outside the comfort of traditional pop songs and experiment with new forms.

Hounds Of Love was a huge international success and is a regular feature in lists of all-time greatest albums. Kate was exonerated and once more became the darling of the music industry. She now had a great working environment and more autonomy than she had ever enjoyed and her next two albums would, despite taking four years each to complete, see her working pretty relentlessly in her studio. Despite the success of The Ninth Wave, Kate would not return to concept pieces again for a while and both The Sensual World and The Red Shoes returned to her familiar format of individual short stories in song.

Kate's songwriting was now in a familiar groove and, despite composing some of her most brilliant songs on these two albums, was not markedly different to the approach she had evolved for Hounds Of Love. One notable exception though was This Woman's Work. While many of Kate's songs were inspired by films, she would create one of her most loved songs for a specific moment in a film. Kate was asked specifically by John Hughes to write a song for his movie She's Having A Baby for the emotional climax when the woman gives birth. The resulting song perfectly caught the emotion of the scene and suggests that Kate could have a fruitful alternative career as a film composer.

On both The Sensual World  and The Red Shoes, Kate was becoming increasingly focused on the production of the songs as she tried to recreate the perfect versions she heard in her head. The effort she expended in this quest would eventually exhaust her and, combined with a desire to focus more on her personal life, would lead to a prolonged break from music. When Kate did return in 2005 with her first album in twelve years, it was clear that things had changed and she had rethought her approach to both songwriting and production. But more on that in the final part of this series.

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