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Kate Bush - The Dreaming Music Album Reviews

In 1982, Kate Bush’s daring and dense fourth album marked her transformation into a fearless experimental artist who was legibly, audibly, very queer, and very obviously in love with pop music.

In 1978, Kate Bush first hit the UK pop charts with “Wuthering Heights” off her romantic, ambitious progressive pop debut The Kick Inside. That same year, her more confident, somewhat disappointing follow-up Lionheart and 1980’s Never for Ever had a grip of charting singles that further grew her UK success without achieving mega-stardom—she barely cracked into American college rock. What is truly amazing between the first chapter of her career and the new one that began with 1982’s The Dreaming is how consistently Bush avoided the musical world around her, preferring to hone and blend her literary, film, and musical inspirations (Elton John, David Bowie, and Pink Floyd) into the idiosyncratic perfection that was 1985’s Hounds of Love. The Dreaming is the artist statement that cleared the way.

The Dreaming was a turning point from Kate Bush, pop star to Kate Bush, artist: a fan favorite for the same reason it was a commercial failure. Part of the Athena myth around Bush is that she arrived to EMI at 16 with a huge archive of songs, and from this quiver came most of the material for the first four albums. The Dreaming was her first album of newly composed work and for it, her first real chance to rethink her songwriting praxis and to produce the songs on her own. Using mainly a Linn drum machine and the Fairlight CMI—an early digital synth she came to master in real time—she cut and pasted layers of timbres and segments of sound rather than recording mixing lines of instruments, a method that would later be commonplace among the producer-musician. At the time, it was still considered odd, especially for a first-time producer, and especially for a young woman prone to fabulous leotards.

The result was an internal unity, a more well-paced album than anything she’d done prior. The songs are full of rhythmic drive, moody synth atmospheres, and layered vocals free of the radio-friendly hooks on earlier albums. The sounds that kept her tethered to rock—such as guitar and rock drum cymbals—are mostly absent, as are the strings that sweetened her prior work. The fretless bass—often the masculine sparring partner to her voice—is still omnipresent. The instrument that connects this all, as always, is the piano, that plodding Victorian ringmaster of Bush’s weird carnival. Considering that the same new-wave combo of drum machines, synth leads, and girlie soprano drove fellow Brits Bananarama to the top of the charts in the same year, it’s easy to hear how far Bush went to tune out the zeitgeist. Accordingly, critics didn’t quite understand it, radio mostly ignored it, and the label hated it. But the album gave Bush the space to build her dream world, and once she figured out what sounds and character should be there, she could make pop again, her way.

The Dreaming really is more a product of the 1970s—which actually sort of began in the late ’60s and extended through most of the ’80s—when prog rock musicians sold millions, had huge radio hits, and established fan bases still rabid today. But the album also came out in 1982, and it only cemented the sense of Bush as a spirited, contrarian of Baroque excess in a musical moment defined largely in reaction to prog’s excess. It’s exactly that audacity to be weird against the prevailing trends that made Kate Bush a great feminist icon who expanded the sonic (and business) possibilities for subsequent visionary singer-songwriters. While name-checking Emerson, Lake & Palmer or Yes is relatively unheard of in today’s hip hop, indie, or pop landscapes, Kate Bush’s name was and is still said with respect. Perhaps it’s because unlike all those prog dudes of yore, she’s legibly, audibly, very queer, and very obviously loves pop music, kind of like her patron saint, David Bowie.

On The Dreaming, Bush’s self-proclaimed “mad” album, her mind works itself out through her mouth. Her cacophony of vocal sounds—at least four on each track—pushed boundaries of how white pop women could sing. Everything about it went against proper, pleasing femininity. Her voice was too high: a purposeful shrilling of the unthreatening girlish head voice; too many: voices doubled, layered, calling and responding to themselves, with the choruses full of creepy doubles, all of them her; too unruly: pitch-shifted, leaping in unexpected intervals, slipping registers until the idea of femme and masculine are clearly performances of the same sounding person; too ugly: more in the way cabaret singers inhabit darkness without bouncing back to beauty by the chorus in the way that female pop singers often must.

All this excess is her sound: a strongly held belief that unites all of the The Dreaming. Nearly half of the album is devoted to spiritual quests for knowledge and the strength to quell self-doubt. Frenetic opener “Sat in Your Lap” was the first song written for the album. Inspired by hearing Stevie Wonder live, it serves as meta-commentary of her step back from the banality of pop ascendancy that mocks shortcuts to knowledge. A similar track, “Suspended in Gaffa,” laments falling short of enlightenment through the metaphor of light bondage in black cloth stagehand tape. It is a pretty queer-femme way thinking through the very prog-rock problem of being a real artist in a commercial theater form, which is probably why it’s a fan favorite.

“Leave It Open” is a declaration of artistic independence hinging on the semantic ambiguity of its pronouns (what is “it” and who are “we”?). Here’s the one solid rock groove of the album, and it crescendos throughout while a breathy, heavily phased alto Bush calls and high-pitched Bush responds in increasingly frantic phrases. “All the Love” is the stunning aria of The Dreaming—a long snake moan on regret. Here she duets with a choirboy, a technique she’d echo with her son on 2011’s 50 Words for Snow. The lament trails off with a skipping cascade of goodbyes lifted from Bush’s broken answering machine, a pure playback memento mori.

The other half of the album showcases Bush’s talent for writing narratives about historical and imagined characters placed in unbearable moral predicaments. This is often called her “literary” or “cinematic” side, but it is also her connection to character within the Victorian-era British music hall tradition, a bawdy and comic form of working-class theatre that borrowed from American vaudeville traditions and became the dominant 19th- and early 20th-century commercial British pop art. As much as she’s in prog rock’s pantheon, she’s also part of this very-pre rock‘n’roll archive of cheeky musical entertainment.

When it works, her narrative portraits render precise individuals in richly drawn scenes—the empathy radiates out. In “Houdini” she fully inhabits the gothic romance of lost love, conjuring the panic, grief, and hope of Harry Houdini’s wife Bess. Bush was taken by Houdini’s belief in the afterlife and Bess’s loyal attempts reach him through séances. Bush conjured the horrified sounds of witnessing a lover die by devouring chocolate and milk to temporarily ruin her voice. Bess was said to pass a key to unlock his bonds through a kiss, the inspiration for the cover art and a larger metaphor for the depth of trust Bush wants in love. We must need what’s in her mouth to survive, and we must get it through a passionate exchange among willing bodies.

In her borrowing further afield, her characters are less accurately rendered. This has been an unabashedly true part of Bush’s artistic imagination since The Kick Inside’s cover art, vaguely to downright problematic in its attempts to inhabit the worlds of Others. On “Pull Out the Pin” she uses the silver bullet as a totem of one’s protection against an enemy of supernatural evil. In this case, the hero is a Viet Cong fighter pausing before blowing up American soldiers who have no moral logic for their service. She’d watched a documentary that mentioned fighters put a silver Buddha into their mouths as they detonated a grenade, and in that she saw a dark mirror to key on the album cover. While the humanizing of such warriors in pop narrative is a brave act, it’s also possible to hear her thin arpeggiated synth percussion and outro cricket sounds as a part of an aural Orientalism that undermines that very attempt.

Then there’s “The Dreaming,” a parable of a real, historical, and contemporary group of Aboriginal people as timeless, noble savages in a tragically ruined Eden that lectures the center of empire about their (our) political and environmental violence. Bush narrates in a grotesquely exaggerated Australian accent over a thicket of exotic animal sounds, both holdovers from music hall and vaudeville’s racist “ethnic humor” tradition, a kind of distancing that suggests that settler Australians are somehow less civilized and thus more responsible for their white supremacist beliefs than the Empire that shipped them there in the first place. In telling this story in this way—without accurate depictions of people, and without credit, understanding, monetary remuneration, proper cultural context, or employment of indigenous musicians—she unfairly extracts cultural (and economic) value from Aboriginal suffering just as the characters in the song mine their land. As a rich text to meditate on colonial, racial, and sexual violence, it is actually quite useful—but not in the way Bush intended.

The closer “Get Out of My House” was inspired by two different maternal and isolation-madness horror texts: The Shining and Alien. In all three stories, a malevolent spirit wants to control a vessel. Bush does not let the spirit in, shouts “Get out!” and when it violates her demand, she becomes animal. Such shapeshifting is a master trope in Kate Bush’s songbook, an enduring way for her music and performance to blend elements of non-Western spirituality and European myth, turning mundane moments into Gothic horror. It’s also, unfortunately, the way that women without power can imagine escape. The mule who brays through the track’s end is a kind of female Houdini—a sorceress who can will her way out of violence not with language, but with real magic. At least it works in the world of her songs, a kingdom where queerly feminine excess is not policed, but nurtured into excellence.


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