Raised in Kent, the county dubbed as the Garden of England, it is easy to be swept up by the wide expanses of green fields and glimmering blue seascapes. Perhaps that is why I have always felt such an affinity for the works of the Romantics, with Wordsworth, in particular, capturing my imagination; there is something indescribably powerful about the way in which the hills roll on and the innumerable trees stare blankly back at passers-by. I suppose the word would be humbling – what are you, after all, to the oaks who stand firm, unmoved and uninterested in what are ultimately far-more temporary visitors to both the forest and the world at large.
There is an understanding in Kate Bush’s masterwork Hounds of Love, a whimsical embrace and yet fearful respect for nature, that betrays her own Kentish upbringing. From the first beatings of the drum, combined with that ethereal synthesiser, on opener Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) the listener finds themselves at the forefront of some great turbulent thunderstorm. Bush’s voice is a weapon, piercing through the sky, battering back the rain and the wind, or, at least, trying to. ‘It doesn’t hurt me’ she cries, ‘do you wanna feel how it feels?’. The connection between herself and the external world is material – ‘there is thunder in our hearts’ – and yet as she begs to know ‘if we matter’, Bush comes across as genuinely apprehensive of the world, as well as her own place within it; this is a contradiction that will define both the rest of the album and the gothic romance at its epicentre.
Indeed, the titular hounds of love themselves do symbolically evoke a sense of love that is perilous, frightening and even unavoidable. This kind of fantastical romance certainly has roots in romantic poetry and gothic literature to which Bush owes a great deal, with her famous, bombastic and stage-setting single Wuthering Heights a prominent example. As the quote goes in Brontë’s legendary text, ‘whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.’ Again, this likening of natural forces to intense experiences of emotion is a clear inspiration and point of reference for Bush’s songwriting. Another similarity is of course in the love’s primal, animalistic character. The writer in both cases is wary of its capacity for destruction as well as for good, and the natural imagery of the writing corresponds according to this almost devolutionary attitude to emotion: it is quite literally a return to basic nature, internally governed and externally manifested. The awe-inspiring magnificence of ‘the big sky’ (with the rather simple adjective implying a level of indescribable size) could be taken as some manifestation of confusion and frustration at her not knowing how to tackle her feelings, whilst meanwhile, the ‘sun coming out’ on my personal favourite Cloudbusting is rather blatantly alluded to represent changing fortunes, with Bush desperately wailing that ‘something good is gonna happen’, even if she admits she doesn’t ‘know when’.
A fantastic synecdoche can be found in the penultimate track Hello Earth, which is something of a powerful moment for the narrator and listener alike. ‘With just one hand held up high/I can blot you out, out of sight’ insinuates a newfound sense of ownership and agency, yet this is immediately quashed by the sight of ‘storms starting to form’. Bush reflects on her futility in the face of such immense power:
Can’t do anything
Just watch them swing with the wind out to sea
All you sailors
Get out of the waves get out of the water
Rather impactfully the backing vocals accuse a ‘murderer’. Just who this is, possibly the Earth itself, but alternatively, Bush, who blames herself for the chaos being caused. Again, this external manifestation of emotion is seen to have dire consequences externally and, crucially, these are consequences that appear to be out of her control.
Further similarities can be found in this song to the work of Christina Rossetti, a Victorian poet heavily influenced by the work of the Romantics and pre-Raphaelites. The imagery of a narrator patrolling the sandy beach, watching over the ‘shivering, snow-white sails’ in Rossetti’s famous work Autumn is paralleled here, whilst the ‘bounding and surrounding… buffeting, astounding winds of Rossetti’s My Secret further evoke ideas of a tempestuous, frightening natural world.
Interestingly, the dynamic appears to be illustrated by Bush as something akin to that of a witch and the natural world; less so in control of the earth’s resources but more a manipulator of them – it could even be interpreted as parasitical. This is most obviously demonstrated in the bizarre track Waking the Witch: if this album was a sonnet, this would be its volta, not least because of its situation as the eighth track of twelve (itself another way in which Bush is pointing to poetry as a source of inspiration for her music). The genuinely haunting vocals on the track, which seem to portray a number of different characters, alongside the beautiful, soaring piano is suddenly and jarringly contrasted with the voice of, what appears to be, the devil or some evil spirit. The natural imagery of ‘red, red roses… pinks and posies’ and even possibly church bells resonating somewhere in the mix further emphasise the struggle between malignant and benign forces within nature, even cementing this fully with some sort of execution of the witch, played by Bush, taking place. Her horrified, high-pitched screaming serves to underline this danger and brings to light the parallels between her own misuse of nature and that of the witches.
Certainly, Bush is a writer who wears her influences upon her sleeve. What makes her so distinctive then, is the way in which she uses her own incredible vocal range and capacity to give these landscapes the sense of majesty that is completely enrapturing. Even her unique sense of style and presentation, including the angelic, almost holy cover that provides a thesis of sorts for the whole work. To conclude, the intertwining worlds of Bush’s imagination and that in which she more literally inhabits make this album one of great introspection, from a perspective that not only resonates with me personally but that is painted onto a universal, grand canvas.