Saturday, 3 January 2015

Kate Bush: The Ninth Wave

Wave after wave, each mightier than the last,
Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep,
And full of voices, slowly rose and plunged,
Roaring, and all the wave was aflame:
The Coming of Arthur, Alfred, Lord Tennyson

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no man fathomed.  Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there.  Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep.
Gerard Manley Hopkins


As regular readers of this blog will know I am suffering from depression. I realize now that this slide into 'not a good place' has taken a year.  I am on the whole feeling better, though I am not out of the woods yet.  One of the consequences of my illness is that way back in the spring when I had a chance to go 'Before the Dawn' - Kate Bush's first concert in decades - I refused.  The bf had to go alone.  And although I understand now why I acted as I did I cannot but regret it.  I am hoping that, due to the success of 'Before the Dawn', Kate Bush will stage another concert series; it would certainly go a long way to ease those regrets.  However, and I hope I am wrong, but what, after concluding every concert with an apotheosis upon the wing of a blackbird, is there left for Kate Bush to do?
Paradoxically there have however positives for me, as I think I have posted before: the limitless kindness of both the bf and my friends.  Musically it has caused have re-engaged with all of Kate Bush's work, and I have realized that I am still a massive fan after years when one reason or another I had forgotten about her. Would though that it had been the other way around with the concert concluding my re-discovery, and not kick starting it.  It certainly would have been less painful.  My album buying stopped with the extraordinary 'The Dreaming', her fourth album; perhaps her most experimental.  I've now kinda caught up, and of all the music I've listened too the most evocative and powerful is 'The Ninth Wave', the second side of her fifth album 'The Hounds of Love'.  I've returned to it again and again; I'm listening to it now as I type these words, and at times I am moved to tears by the sheer intensity of it. It's odd perhaps for a middle aged man, although a gay one, to say that he has come to identify so deeply with these seven tracks that make up 'The Ninth Wave'.  The reason for this, however, is simple: I've come to see it as an extended metaphor for depression, if not mental illness.  A very cursory trawl through the internet has lead me to believe I am not the only one to see it this way.
Released in 1985, the seven tracks of 'The Ninth Wave' are: 'And dream of Sheep', 'Under Ice', 'Waking the Witch', 'Watching you without me', 'Jig of Life', 'Hello Earth' and 'The Morning Fog'.  The stylistic differences between the two sides of the album make it feel more like a double album, something that the CD format unfortunately blurs.  This compelling sequence of songs tells of the drowning, or perhaps near drowning of a woman adrift at sea, after, presumably, her ship went down.  The circumstances leading up to this are never explained (something in itself that admits a variant reading).  An attempt to do so was made at 'Before the Dawn' where 'The Ninth Wave' formed part of the first half of the concert - though the attempt was not to everybody's satisfaction.  (I was surprised that no use was made of  Powell and Pressburger's 1945 film 'I know where I'm Going', knowing how much an influence the two film makers have been on Kate Bush. But that's just me.)  I think it would make a very long post if I listed all the ways in which I believe 'The Ninth Wave' makes reference to depression, or at least admits to that reading, but I would point firstly to look at the lyrics of the second track 'Under Ice', which are really about surfaces of things, appearances and what lies beneath, and (obviously) about being trapped.  Drowning, too, is often used a metaphor for mental illness; 'not waving but drowning' wrote Sylvia Plath.
In some ways 'The Ninth Wave' reminds me of two of my favorite pieces of music - the two song cycles by Benjamin Britten: the 'Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings', op 31, and the later 'Nocturne for tenor, 7 obligato instruments and strings' op 60.  All three share common themes of night, dreams and terror; and all are resolved with coming of the dawn.  And although 'Before the Dawn' presented them as 'real' I am tempted to pose the question: are all the tracks merely dreams, some more terrible than others, and not the hallucinations of the dying?  Indeed, 'The Ninth wave' is in some ways a 'Dark night of the Soul', a spiritual or mental crisis, (presuming that is that the event takes place over one night) that is resolved with the dawn and  the return - the rescue - to 'the sweet morning fog' - the fog that is of everyday life, not a triumph, but how sweet everyday life must seem at that point.  On the album 'The Morning Fog' is a short, almost perfunctory track, but at the concert it was more joyful in character, says the bf, with a real folk feel to it.  Either way it fits quite neatly into one of Kate Bush's recurrent themes: the Pastoral.  Just think of 'Oh England my Lionheart', 'Delius', 'Bertie' and 'An Endless Sky of Honey', (both from 'Aerial').
I do not want to push the analogy too far, but there is a sense in which, for me, 'The Ninth Wave' is Baptismal: more specifically it reflects the Paschal Baptism which occurs during the night of East Saturday and Easter Day, when the candidates of Baptism undergo a mimetic death in water, and paradoxically new life comes through that water - 'The Morning Fog' is a promise of loving better after all.  None of this should surprise us; after all Kate Bush was, I believe, educated at a convent school.
Dreams and madness seem to be recurrent themes in Kate Bush's music, perhaps most strikingly in 'Get out of My House, the final track of 'The Dreaming'; but it is also found to some extent in 'Fullhouse' on the 'Lionheart' album.  Interesting that both those tracks use the metaphor of the house in connection with the self.  On 'Never for Ever' we can presume that the singer of 'Wedding List' has been driven mad by grief.  Dreams and madness are also themes in the English Romantic tradition, (a tradition I would see Kate Bush a descendant of), just as in that tradition there is a very strong connection between those themes and the supernatural.  In many examples of, say, the English Romantic novel, or ghost story, we are never certain whether a supernatural event was real or imagined.  One only has to think of 'The Turn of the Screw', or 'Wuthering Heights'.


What hours, O what black hours have we spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
Gerard Manley Hopkins

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