The difficult question when it comes to writing about The Dreaming isn’t so much "Can I write about this record without gushing?" as "Should I?". Having thought about it a bit, I can’t see why not. The Dreaming is not merely the best Kate Bush record; it’s THE BEST RECORD EVER MADE BY ANYONE IN THE HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC!!! It’s perfect from beginning to end: strange, innovative, melodic, exciting, packed with raw emotion, violence and clever storytelling. It also has Kate braying like a donkey.
But that doesn’t happen until the end. "Sat In Your Lap" opens the record with a pounding cymbal-less drum pattern, Stevie Wonder-inspired piano, ska-like afterbeats and Kate’s characteristic banshee voice; but it’s immediately and startlingly different from anything on the previous album. The Dreaming‘s melody lines are shorter than on earlier albums, taking a back seat to the tapestry of sound and rhythm. Having said that, "There Goes a Tenner" and "Pull Out The Pin" still showcase Kate’s piano playing. In the former, it’s part of another ska rhythm, somewhat slowed down; in the latter, it is woven into the menace created by Danny Thompson’s double bass and Brian Bath’s eerie, effect-heavy guitars.
The next two songs are the fast waltz "Suspended in Gaffa" and "Leave it Open" with its slowed-down and muted heavy metal stomp. Jimmy Bain (then of Dio) plays bass on that track as well as "Sat in Your Lap" and the album closer "Get Out Of My House". In "Leave it Open", Kate’s voice is distorted by a flanging effect which makes her use of her lower register extra scary.
The second half of the album begins with the title track, notoriously backed by Rolf Harris on didgeridu. It seems to be some sort of British tradition to make fun of Rolf Harris and claim that his didgeridu playing was the reason the record wasn’t commercially succesful, but it’s not a tradition I want anything to do with. The didgeridu sounds like every other didgeridu outside of a Gjallarhorn record and the album made the UK top 10 and spawned two hit singles, one of which was that title track. So there. It’s a good track; not the album’s best but sitting innocuously in the middle. Through a short bridging section, it leads into the much better "Night of the Swallow" a dramatic track with Irish folk instrumentation courtesy of Bill Whelan. Vocally, "Night of the Swallow" is a tour de force in which Kate allows her voice to break just enough to convey the character’s anguish and frustration.
"All The Love", by contrast, has a sad, elegiac mood, ending with choirboy singing and answering machine messages bidding farewell in response to the lead vocals. It’s the closest on the album to old-style Kate Bush.
"Houdini" alternates between moody menace in the verses, sexy sweetness in the first parts of the choruses and panic and horror in the second parts of the choruses. It’s quite a ride, but not as much of a ride as "Get Out Of My House", the highlight of an already perfect album. It’s a violent, layered track with pounding drums, echoing guitars and throbbing heavy metal bass. The vocals alone contain three separate musical threads: the repetitive shrieks of "Get out of my house!", the repeated, high-pitched taunts of "With my key I – With My Keeper I" and the litany of things found in the house. The second half of the song evolves into a duet followed by animal sounds and drum talk. Play it loud; if you’re already playing the album loud, play this track louder.
Many of the lyrics feature a character, the Fictional!Kate, in a moment of intense concentration and/or crisis. The protagonist of "Pull Out The Pin" is a Vietnamese guerilla about to make a kill. The bank robber protagonist of "Tenner" is about to pull of a heist. Their stories are compressed into the moment where "it" happens.
Then there’s the references to chains and bonds, keys, locks, and crime. The character in "Gaffa" is struggling through invisible bonds (as if restrained by gaffa tape) towards an unattainable goal. The Fictional!Kate of "Leave it Open" responds to "a trigger come cocking" by shutting herself off from the world, but heals and learns to leave herself open and let the weirdness in. In addition to the bank robbing tale of "Tenner", there’s the drug smuggler narrative of "Night Of The Swallow"; in that song, Kate takes on the role of the smuggler’s wife trying to prevent the smuggler from going on one more trip. The penultimate song "Houdini" features the line that was the tagline for the original vinyl edition: With a kiss, I pass the key – the key being the one Houdini will use to free himself from his chains. "Houdini" actually weaves two stories: the one of Houdini’s death in the fishtank, and the one of his widow holding a séance – ostensibly to contact Houdini in the afterlife but really to expose the medium for the fraud she believes him to be. The medium, however, uses the secret passphrase her late husband gave her.
The final song returns to the themes of violation and seclusion, and mentions keys again. In "Get Out of the House" Fictional!Kate protects herself, her house, her life, herself against an unseen intruder. Withdrawing into herself, she sees a part of herself as a concierge barring and bolting the doors that would otherwise have provided an opening for the intruder. When that fails, she engages the intruder in a "Two Magicians" routine, in which they take turns transforming themselves into something stronger than the opponent’s last shape. Fictional!Kate ends up as a mule, braying and ugly, but victorious.
Much has been written in the papers lately about Kate Bush’s intense wish for privacy, and especially for safety from the prying eyes of the press. "Leave it Open" and "Get Out of My House" show that this desire to be left alone has long been present in Bush’s mind and in her recorded music. "Gaffa" and "All The Love" show why she values privacy – because the intrusions of public life distract a person from her own goals and from the pursuit of intimacy with those who are close to her.
Or maybe not. Is it worth the trouble to sum up the meaning of The Dreaming in a few words of analysis and criticism? The only thing that could sum up this album is the album. If The Dreaming was a world, it would need a map the size of that world to represent it fully. It is that rich, with more emotion, meaning and passion crammed into its 43 minutes than many artists can hope to portray in a lifetime.
It’s fun to try though; The Dreaming excites me not just emotionally but also intellectually, and I can’t help but try to create a clearer picture of just what makes all the pieces fit together so well. But maybe I should just have gushed.
The Dreaming is essential, with polished brass knobs on and extra swearing. Did I mention that you should play it loud? And that often when "Get Out Of My House" comes on I can’t resist the urge to dance (when no one is watching)?