This isn’t about us. The greatest pop reconfigures your nervous system, implants false memories, but always exceeds you: it gives us other narratives, other untold-of possibilities, other worlds, that remain inside us like ghosts. The expression Kate Bush achieved on Hounds Of Love is intensely personal, even esoteric, and the listener’s response – this listener’s, anyway – is no less so, but both still spiral out into constellation of experience; it is precisely the depth of this journey into the personal that allows it to expand into the universal. Its fractured narratives – the two sides, titled ‘Hounds of Love’ and ‘The Ninth Wave’, the latter of which itself forms a kind of conceptual sequence narrated by the half-consciousness of a drowning woman, a gloriously strange counterpart to the hit parade of the first – together form an oblique totality more comparable to a feminist Waste Land than most pop.
It represents, indeed, a point where the language of pop exceeds its prosaic, everyday use and enters the realm of poetry. The syn-drums, throbbing electronics, borderline-OTT guitar solos and soaring vocals that marred so many mid-80s power-ballads reappear throughout – made alien, as if heard for the first time. So it is that opener and No. 1 single ‘Running Up That Hill’, beginning from a synth-tone like cold dawn breaking and processional drum-machine, spirals into ecstatic throes like the universe opening up overhead, just as does the euphoric ‘Big Sky’. The title-track feeds Angela Carter through New Pop, accessing a feminine sexuality at once assertive and naïve, afraid of its own power, seemingly excavated from folk-memory; Bush bursts, at the whiplash of strings and percussion, into glossolalia – “a Dadaist postscript to ‘Reynard The Fox”, as Marcello Carlin puts it. The album plunges further into Freudian psychodrama with the disturbing ‘Mother Stands For Comfort’ (Joy Division’s ‘I Remember Nothing’ remade as a domestic drama), and the graceful, controlled surge of ‘Cloudbusting’.
‘The Ninth Wave’ follows like a long plunge in icy water, a disappearance into the other world promised by the first side, anticipating all of pop’s future potential languages in one glorious conglomeration – and, indeed, outdoing most ‘experimental’ music of the next twenty years in daring and strangeness. Bush’s Fairlight sampler, then the technological cutting-edge, results in the sampled voices, Morse code bleeps, cut-up vocals and breakbeats threaded throughout ‘The Ninth Wave’, anticipating sampledelic hip-hop. ‘Waking The Witch’ feeds disco and electro through the cut-up of William Burroughs and John Cage; ‘Watching You Without Me’ presages both the scarred and skipping melodies of Fennesz’ Endless Summer and the R&Bollywood trend of the early 00s. But there’s nothing dryly technical about its jouissance: this purgatorial drama yielding to the undeniable blood-rush of ‘Jig of Life’ and the morning spryness of ‘The Morning Fog’ feels like rebirth, like the beginning of a future – for her, for us all.
There is far more here than can be encapsulated in this space – and this is, perhaps, exactly what has allowed the album to stand alone, outstripping all of Bush’s progeny in advance. The media has finally opened up to female artists – but only a certain kind, your Florences and Marinas, ‘eccentric’, ‘passionate’, still happy to play the enigmatic (and ultimately subordinate) female Other, all bastardising the language coined here 25 years ago. Michael Bracewell’s condescending description of Bush as “pop’s … mad girl in the attic” makes clear the problem she presents: a female artist so excessively, effortlessly inventive, so brazenly open and complex in her explorations of dream, memory and sexuality, so ruthlessly ahead of the game, can only make the prissy little boys of critic-land afraid. This album is everything we still need, and so much more.