Kate Bush - The Dreaming

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Kate Bush - The Dreaming

The Dreaming cover

What can I say but, wow! If I had to reduce my desert island list to five albums instead of ten, this one would definitely still be there. Kate Bush has a tremendous amount of talent, a playful creativity that's matched only by Peter Gabriel's work, and an exceptional voice to boot. Her songs can stand on their own, as demonstrated on her first two albums, but her unique incorporating of different styles and instruments on her later albums makes her as much of a musical innovator as the Beach Boys, the Beatles, or Charlie Parker. For most people, this album is not very accessible at first, but trust me -- keep listenting and you will realize what a masterpiece it is.

Kate's first two albums, The Kick Inside and Lionheart were mostly focused on piano and vocals, with emphasis on the songs, and little novel in the way of production. This established her as a singer and a songwriter, and got her album sales and critical acclaim. I think these albums really paved the way for current artists like Tori Amos and Jewel, but Kate was just getting started.

On her third album, Never For Ever, Kate started taking a bit more control in the studio, and the sound of her albums changed. She started to experiment a bit more on songs like Babooshka and Army Dreamers, but most of the album was still fairly traditional. Then came The Dreaming.

On The Dreaming, Kate took over production of all her songs, and the transformation is startling. There's still lots of piano and vocals there, but also didjeridu and bouzouki and uillean pipe and donkey brays and helicopters. There are rhythms borrowed from several cultures. There are highly literate lyrics that alternately illuminate and obscure complex themes. Basically, there are 10 masterpieces of musical innovation. Here's my song-by-song review:

  1. Sat In Your Lap -

    Some say that knowledge is something that sat in your lap.
    Some say that knowledge is something that you never have.

    Most pop or rock and roll artists wouldn't dream of starting off an album with a song about epistemology, but here it is. This song is about how hard it is to obtain knowledge, and how when you get it, it often isn't as satisfying as you thought it would be.

    I hold a cup of wisdom,
    but there is nothing within.

    You achieve some intellectual goal, and you see that it's just a foothill for a bigger mountain of knowledge behind -

    I've been doing it for years.
    My goal is moving near.
    It says, "Look! I'm over here.",
    Then it up and disappears.

    And this is all laid over a hypnotic techno-tribal rhythm, and some punchy synth-horns. The rhythm seems to be a fast 12 with the accents on beats 2, 5, 7, 9, and 11. In other words,

    one TWO three four FIVE six ONE two THREE four FIVE six
    one TWO three four FIVE six ONE two THREE four FIVE six

    (I've used one-six twice here instead of one-12 to avoid the issue of multiple syllables). Except that the syncopation is accented by dropping the 3 beat, so it's really:

    one TWO - four FIVE six ONE two THREE four FIVE six
    one TWO - four FIVE six ONE two THREE four FIVE six

    This is is a song with a message, and the message is "Beware! This is not the old Kate yer hearing on this album, so watch out."

  2. There Goes A Tenner -

    This is the first of the story songs on the album. It's about a botched robbery attempt where the burglers used too much explosives. The story is told from the point of view of one of the robbers who was knocked unconscious by the explosion

    You blow the safe up.
    Then all I know is I wake up,
    Covered in rubble. One of the rabble
    Needs mummy.
    The government will never find the money.

    and is now presumably in police custody.

    I've been here all day,
    A star in strange ways.
    Apart from a photograph
    They'll get nothing from me,
    Not until they let me see my solicitor.

    The title refers to a ten-pound note:

    Oh, there goes a tenner.
    hey look, there's a fiver.

    Presumably, she's referring to all the money flying through the air after the safe blows up (at least that's my opinion - People on rec.music.gaffa have expressed other ideas).

    This song is a bit more musically conventional than the opener. It's got a ska feel, but done mostly with piano, drums, and bass. For the chorus and bridge (if you could call them that), the rhythm shifts and a nice bass riff make it a bit more complex and dreamy.

  3. Pull Out The Pin -

    This is my current favorite song on the album, though that's constantly changing. The song is about the Vietnam war as seen through the eyes of a member of the Viet Cong who is stalking an American soldier. It's based on an Australian documentary that Kate saw which was shot from the point of view of the Vietnamese, so the Americans are seen as the bad guy.

    Who need radar? We use scent.
    They stink of the west, stink of sweat.
    Stink of cologne and baccy, and all their Yankee hash

    When the protagonist finally comes face to face with his enemy, he finally sees some of the humanity in him -

    I had not seen his face,
    'til I'm only feet away
    Unbeknown to my prey.
    I look in American eyes.
    I see little life,
    See little wife.
    He's striking violence up in me.

    Of course, he realizes that there are only two possible conclusions -

    Just one thing in it:
    me or him.
    And I love life,
    so I pull out the pin.

    One obscure reference that comes from the song is ...With my silver Buddah, and my silver bullet, .... Here, Kate is referring to a small silver Buddah that the Vietnamese would wear on a chain around their neck. When they went into action, they'd put it in their mouth so that if they died, they'd have Buddah on their lips.

    The lyrics are very pointed in a couple of senses. First there's the good-guy/bad-guy issue. Most of the media that we see here in the U.S. is generated in the U.S., so it's biased to always see us as the good guys. If you were someone living in North Vietnam at the time of the war, there was a goodly chance that you saw the Americans as the bad guys. They were just defenfing their homeland; we came from thousands of miles away to fight them.

    Beyond that, there's the issue that both of the soldiers are humans, but war allows them to view each other (and to a lesser extent themselves) as less than human, and to devalue their lives. While the governments of their respective countries may each be right or wrong in some sense, to the individual soldiers, it's just kill or be killed, and they have to make the enemy seem less than human to justify that to themselves.

    The music is the most challenging on the album, both rhythmically and melodically. Though there are clear verses and choruses, this is not your standard 1-4-5-1 pop song. The chief instrumental devices are a wood-block-like percussion riff with a slapback echo, a heavily portamentoed bass line, a doctored guitar (or possibly a synth meant to sound like a guitar), and Kate on piano and vocals. Additionally, several sound effects are incorporated including children and a helicopter. The whole feel of the song is very dark and portentious. I love it, though I admit it took some listening to before it drew me in.

  4. Suspended In Gaffa -

    The impression I've always had of this song is that it's about an experience in EST or some other personal fulfillment type seminar -

    Out in the garden
    There's half of a heaven,
    And we're only bluffing.
    We're not ones for busting through walls,

    But they've told us
    Unless we can prove
    That we're doing it,
    We can't have it all.

    Kate has been fairly vague in interviews as to what the song is about. Apparently, she claims it has to do with seeing God (or some perfect goal) and then never being able to achieve it due to your own (or her own, if you will) imperfections, as the chorus illustrates:

    Suddenly my feet are feet of mud.
    It all goes slow-mo.
    I don't know why I'm crying.
    Am I suspended in Gaffa?

    Kate claims gaffa is slang for gaffer's tape, which fits okay, but not great (but who else are ya gonna ask what it means? :-). Of course, the fans at rec.music.gaffa have provided many alternative explanations for the meaning of this song.

    The song is in 12, which is more apparent in the chorus than the verses, as the lyrical beats in the verse are on the 4 accented beats. In the chours, the lyric is more fluid, so you get the feeling that four of the bars of 3 are actually one bar of 12.

  5. Leave It Open -

    This song is about how people learn to shut out new ideas and people.

    With my ego in my gut,
    My babbling mouth would wash it up.
    (But now I've started learning how,)
    I keep it shut.

    My door was never locked,
    Until one day a trigger come cocking.
    (But now I've started learning how,)
    I keep it shut.

    There are three interesting vocal distortions on this song. The first is a constant phasing of Kate's vocals on the verse. This is makes it sound more ephemeral and detached. The other effect is a resampling (or just tape speedup) of the line But now I've started learning how. The third one is a double reverse recording (more about that later).

    I actually see this song as related to the last song on the second side, Get Out Of My House. Both songs conjure up images of someone who has been hurt and is pushing away the world as a defense mechanism. While the other song seems to focus on blocking out a particular person, this song seems to be more about blocking out new ideas.

    Kate's view leans toward letting new ideas in, as evidenced by the final line, We let the weirdness in. There's actually a controversy over that line. Kate recorded it forwards, played the tape backwards and learned the progression of sounds backwards. She then sang it backwards and recorded it, reversed that, and used that on the cut. (the same effect was used for all the dwarf's lines in David Lynch's TV series Twin Peaks). Because this makes it sound strange, many people thought it must acutally be some backwards maksed message which they must decode.

  6. The Dreaming -

    'Bang!' goes another kanga
    On the bonnet of the van.
    (See the light ram through the gaps in the land.)

    This is another song about seeing through the eyes of someone who's being trod on. Where Pull Out The Pin was about the Vietnamese, this is about the way "civilized" people destroy the environment and push out the aborigines in Austrailia.

    Erase the race that claim the place
    And say we dig for ore.
    Dangle devils in a bottle
    And push them from the Pull of the Bush.

    There are two mildly obscure references here. Dangle devils in a bottle refers to the fact that as with the Indians in America, the "civilized" people give them alcohol to weaken them. The bush is the wilderness in Australia.

    The instrumentation for this song includes a didjeridu, and no piano or bass. Though many of the instruments may be sampled and played on a Fairlight, she seems to be trying to give a feel of native abo music. I'm not familiar with the instruments or rhythms of native Australian music, so I don't really know if this is what she's trying to do (or how well she's doing it), but it certainly doesn't sound like western rock & roll. Very interesting and almost as challenging as Pull Out The Pin

  7. Night Of the Swallow -

    Another story song, this is the favorite Kate song of many of her devoted fans. The plot here involves a dialog between two people, both of which are sung by Kate. One person (the husband?) wants to fly a plane to do some unspecified illegal act for the adventure

    With a hired plane, and no names mentioned.
    Tonight's the night of the flight.
    Before you know,
    I'll be over the water like a swallow.
    There's no risk.
    I'll whisk them up in no moonlight.
    And though pigs can fly,
    They'll never find me posing as the night,
    and I'm home before the morning.

    The other person (the wife?) doesn't want him to go, because she's worried -

    If you go, I'll let the law know,
    And they'll head you off when you touch the ground.
    Ooh, please, don't go through with this.
    I don't like the sound of it.

    We never really find out what "the act" is (smuggling? jail break? spying?) or if the person gets to go through with it. The song ends with the woman pleading, "but you're not a swallow."

    This is one of the more western sounding songs on the album. The verses are a new-wave ballad, and the chorus is an Irish reel (or are reel's Scottish, I don't remember :-), complete with bodhran, mandolin, and Uillean pipe.

  8. All The Love -

    This song starts a short (two song) calm section of the album. All the Love is a ballad about not loving enough, and how people often never express their love for someone until that person has died.

    The first time I died
    Was in the arms of good friends of mine.
    They kiss me with tears.
    They hadn't been near me for years.
    Say, why do it now
    When I won't be around, I'm going out

    A bridge introduces the reason for this holding back of love

    I needed you
    to love me too.
    I wait for your move.

    The impression here being that people are afraid to love lest they not be loved in return. Unfortunately, my naive understanding of the song doesn't explain the meaning of the last verse.

    The next time I dedicate
    My life's work to the friends I make,
    I give them what they want to hear.
    They think I'm up to something weird
    And up rears the head of fear in me.
    So now when they ring
    I get my machine to let them in.

    If you think you have an explanation that fits, let me know, `cause I'm clueless.

    The structure of the chorus and verses of the song is mostly a straightforward ballad in 4 using normal instruments (a rarity for this album :-). The one novel musical section is the bridge, which has the feel of a choirboy singing over "aaahs". It brings out the melancholy quality of the song very nicely.

  9. Houdini -

    Houdini was the song that first got me hooked into this album. It's about Bess and Harry Houdini. The music has three distinct segments, all of which are in common time. There are two segments with lyrics, and they have different musical and lyrical themes. I wouldn't really call these segments verse and chorus, as there's no repetition involved, but they are distinct. One theme is about how Bess repeatedly tried to contact her husband Harry via seances after his death.

    I wait at the table,
    and hold hand with weeping strangers.
    Wait for you to join the group.

    Apparently, they had set up a code so that if one of them died before the other, they would know if the deceased was talking thought the medium. The code words were "Rosabel, believe".

    Him and I in a room,
    to prove you are with us too
    He's using code that only you and I know.
    This is no trick of his,
    this is your magic.

    The other musical/lyrical segment is concerned with Houdini's water tank trick, and how Bess would pass him the key, but how she worried about it. And of course, this also alludes to Houdini's death, which happened in that particular trick.

    Through the glass,
    I watch you breathe.
    Bound and drowned,
    and paler than you've ever been.

    With your life
    the only thing in my mind,
    we pull you from the water.

    Thus the two segments neatly juxtapose Houdini's death with his attempts to escape death by contacting Bess. Unfortunately, the real story doesn't end quite as nicely as the song. Bess eventually regretfully gave in and believed that Harry would never contact her.

    If the album sounds intriguing to you, but the idea of "challenging" music :-) doesn't sound too promising to you, listen to this song first. You'll buy the album just for this one, and you'll probably eventually like the whole album as well.

  10. Get Out Of My House -

    If you take my advice and listen to only Houdini at first, stop the disk before you get to this one. :-) This is one of the least accessible songs on the album, and the lyrics seem like she's trying to scare you off.

    No stranger's feet
    Will enter me. (Get out of my house!)
    I wash the panes, (Get out of my house!)
    I clean the stains away. (Get out of my house!)

    In Get Out Of My House, the house is a metaphor for a woman's mind. She's recently been rejected and now the person is coming back and she's pushing them away -

    I am the concierge chez-moi, honey.
    Won't letcha in for love, nor money.
    My home, my joy.
    I'm barred and bolted and I
    (Won't let you in).
    (Get out of my house!)

    The lyrical imagery has him chasing her through the house. She eventually changes into a bird, which he counters with a cold wind, so she turns into a Mule and brays at him. Kate says that the song is about running away with things that you have to deal with, and that eventually you just have to turn and deal with them.

    Kate's vocal quality on the song is frantic and almost screaming at times, which is fitting with the theme. The music on this song is most similar to the opeining track, Sat In Your Lap. It has a regular structured drum track that repeats for most of the song (except for the concierge part), though slightly slower than SIYL.

Kate starts the album off singing about philosophy and closes the album braying. Is it any wonder many people have trouble getting into The Dreaming? :-) Trust me though, if you give this album a chance it will weave it's way into your DNA such that you will require regular doses of it.

If you'd like, you can buy the album here. Heck, buy two or three copies; I get a kickback. (well, a little one anyway :-)

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