Home Music Discography Discography: Kate Bush: The Dreaming

Discography: Kate Bush: The Dreaming

For an album that would eventually be considered a masterpiece, the initial reviews of The Dreaming were dire. Christgau notably gave it a B+, and damned it with faint praise. “Obviously she’s trying to become less accessible,” Neil Tennant quipped. Frequently referred to as a “flop,” the album nonetheless reached the 20s on the charts in Australia, Canada and Germany, smacked up to three in the U.K., and even cracked the US Billboard 200 (at 157, mind you)—hardly the advertised failure.

Undeniably, the critics weren’t sure what to make of this album, rich with quick-change rhythms, folk instruments, nibbles of speech, and Vietnam-chopper sound effects. It seems they had just acquired a taste for the little-girl soprano gymnastics of Bush’s first few albums; they were beginning to be charmed by the leggy girl in spandex with saucer eyes and stage calisthenics and an ear-splitting “Heathcliff.” But this was another animal indeed.

In fact it was animal—full of groans and gasps, hissing vocal effects and jungle drums. It was also intellectual, complex, full of big vision—things that, arguably, the music world wasn’t entirely ready to accept from a woman, especially one attractive and young. But on The Dreaming, Bush established several aspects of her work that were to become watchwords of all her future oeuvre: multi-layered instruments and vocals; allusions to history, culture and literature; polyrhythms and changing time signatures; and employment of spoken-word snippets and other non-traditional ‘instruments’. Working on her own terms for the first time, Bush was able to demonstrate what a massive vision she had. If the album had almost too much diversity to grasp, it was because Bush was freshly cut loose from the bonds of outside managers, selecting, arranging and producing all the pieces solo. As well, she had broken with familiar engineer Jon Kelly, feeling that if she were to make the album truly different, she would need to find fresh ears. The Dreaming credited four engineers and seven assistant engineers, but only one producer: Kate Bush.

The resulting extraordinary album comprises ten solid tracks. It opens with the pouncing, philosophical “Sat In Your Lap,” where Bush’s now-familiar little-girl scream decorates the chorus. The song, though, employs the full range of Bush’s vocal skills; no girlish Cathy here, she drops to a contralto and leaps to coloratura richness on a dime. “There Goes a Tenner” takes as its topic a bank heist gone wrong and sports a contrasting, heart-tugging synth bridge; “Pull Out the Pin” takes on the Vietnam war, ostensibly (and somewhat cringe-inducingly) from the Viet Cong perspective, anchored by double bass and a dizzying helicopter outro. Only “Suspended in Gaffa,” sporting earlier-era-Kate backing vocals and a peppy, repetitive chop, has the feel of pop.

Bush processes vocals with sizzle on “Leave it Open,” brings in pennywhistle and uilleann pipes on “Night of the Swallow,” adds talking drum and contrasts fierce screams with dry, boundary-setting speech to “Get Out of My House,” lending a multi-cultural air and a feminist iron to the collection of tracks. While the title track, with its reference to Australian Aboriginal cultural stories and use of didgeridoo, best epitomizes the multicultural approach, it lands uncomfortably on our ears in this third decade of the 21st century. Although Bush’s intent was to illuminate the abuses perpetrated by the white colonizers on the native population (“Erase the race that claim the place and say we dig for ore”), the song was originally titled using a racial slur (copies with that title were recalled) and the lyrics also use a term that was, by this time, no longer favored by many Aboriginal Australians. Worse, a white man (Rolf Harris; his crimes were yet to become public) played the didgeridoo, an Aboriginal drone instrument; no Aboriginal musicians appear to have been involved. Despite this, the track reached 91 on the charts in Australia and as high as 48 in the U.K.

The two most melodious songs on the album sit back-to-back at positions 8 and 9. “All the Love” speaks to loneliness, Bush’s voice rich and soulful but elastic as always, and ends with a serendipitous overlap of greetings on Bush’s answering machine. It’s followed by “Houdini,” whose story—of Houdini’s wife Bess using a kiss to pass him a key on her tongue that he would need to escape his bonds—is illustrated by the striking album cover. The song describes a séance attended by Bess after Houdini’s tragic death. Bush’s voice, ragged and distraught as she describes Houdini’s death, engages the emotions, and, sculpted by strings and piano, the music is nearly neoclassical. In the background, bassist Del Palmer—soon to become Bush’s husband—intones the Houdini’s code: “Rosabel, believe!

Compelling, varied, dramatic and risk-taking, The Dreaming stands the test of time. It made space for many musicians to follow, especially women—everyone from Bat for Lashes to Tori Amos cedes her credit for paving the way. Too, it built the groundwork for all of Bush’s subsequent work and provides a template for understanding the music to follow. And it lay down a gauntlet to the critics: perhaps it was time to catch up with their audience. “People told me it was a commercial disaster,” Bush later mused, “but it reached number three, so that’s their problem.”

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