It could seem strange to ask what the Ninth Wave, the set of seven songs on the second side of Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, is about. After all, Kate Bush has said herself that it tells the story of a woman lost at sea who then experiences a number of dreams or hallucinations about life and death before being rescued.
What’s always attracted me to this piece of music, as well as the fact that it’s hugely ambitious and intensely emotional, is that it’s always felt like something that hid a secret. One of the things that I’m most in awe of with Kate Bush is that, at her best, she seems to have layers of meaning in her songs that are very deliberate and cleverly mix stories, myths, and emotions communicated through characters as well as through herself. I love the ambiguity but also the sense that there’s a trail of breadcrumbs which, if you could follow them, you would understand it all.
Over the last few years though I’ve come to see the Ninth Wave as also being a clear statement from Kate Bush that she had decided to abandon the music industry, or at least the part of it that was affecting her life and possibly threatening her sanity.
I’m sure that this can’t just be my conclusion. I’ve followed a number of online dialogues trying to decipher the meaning of The Ninth Wave and no-one has mentioned this theory but I assume it’s not original. The prompt for me was actually a similar theory being put forward for David Bowie’s Scary Monsters album by Garry Mulholland in his book Fear of Music, quoted below:
“The last great Bowie album…and what makes Scary Monsters especially great is that this isn’t down to hindsight. Scary Monsters is about not striving to be the greatest anything anymore. It’s Bowie’s valedictory goodbye… The key point of (Ashes to Ashes) and the album is Bowie’s self-preservation… Drink, drugs, depression, damaging relationships, weird obsessions with the occult and fascism; all of those artrock-boy vices were the very stuff his best work came from. That probably isn’t that rare…what is, is that someone as big as Bowie should announce so publicly that he’s choosing life…”
Obviously the circumstances with Kate were different from Bowie’s, but her biography by Graeme Thomson, Under the Ivy, describes the recording of The Dreaming as having “pushed her to the point of mental and physical exhaustion” only to get a negative reaction from critics and into arguments with her own record label who apparently came close to refusing to release it. Interviews with Kate suggest that there had been opposition to her producing The Dreaming herself, so no doubt the male dominated industry was ready to punish this young woman who had asserted herself and, up until then, had always been proved right. (In retrospect she was also right this time as The Dreaming is a fabulous album, but it sold less well than her others so no doubt there were people ready to tell her that they, not her, knew best.)
It’s well known that she moved into her own studio at her parents’ house to record Hounds of Love which has been described at a ‘liberating environment’, but the songs themselves are likely to have been born in the aftermath of the Dreaming and therefore come from a much darker place. I believe that The Ninth Wave describes her decision to move to her own studio and take more control of her career, but also the battle that she must have had to go through to convince her record company to support this. Taking it a bit further, I also see in there a message that, like Bowie, she’s choosing life by refusing to let her music, her art, consume her.
And Dream Of Sheep
An atmosphere of resignation runs through the first song on The Ninth Wave. Seeing these songs partly as a power struggle between Kate and her record company, it starts with her feeling defeated and uncertain, and ready to accept their version of where her career should be going – “Oh I’ll wake up to any sound of engines” has a ring of ‘I’m ready to accept anything you suggest’ about it. This also echoes a sense of being ready to abandon how she creates music and give in to someone else’s way: “I can’t be left to my imagination, let me be weak…” The last verse about being put to sleep recognises the seductiveness of letting others take on decisions for you after fighting alone for so long: “And they say they take me home…”
There’s a disconnect here between the lyrics describing someone speeding serenely across the ice and the way they are sung, which is challenging and almost disembodied, like someone’s subconscious coming to the surface. If the scene describing a person gliding across ice is how a successful pop star might appear from the outside then the fact that her skates are in fact splitting the ice is telling, as is the fact that it turns out to be the same person struggling and drowning, with the intense scream at the end recognising “it’s me”. The different voices in the songs are important as much of it seems to be a message from Kate to herself to recognise that she’s trapped and this won’t end well. So it’s in this vein that we go straight from ‘Under Ice’ to voices telling her to “wake up!”
Waking The Witch
The theme of this song, a witch trial is interesting, as these were often used in medieval times as ways to punish and persecute powerful women in communities (such as midwives) and it could well illustrate how Kate felt in a male dominated recording industry. A male voice towards the end says “I am responsible for your actions” and it’s not much of a stretch to imagining this being a quote from a real life argument. At the end of the song comes one of the lines that reappears later – “get out of the waves, get out of the water.” Another message from Kate to herself that it’s time to get out while she can.
Watching You Without Me
The woman lost at sea, or at least her spirit, visits a loved one but they don’t know she’s there. I see this as the start of the point where the problems in Kate’s career seem to be brought into perspective by a realisation that immersing herself in her music also means that she’s neglecting relationships with family and friends. The recurring refrain of “you can’t hear me” is interesting, especially when this later takes a turn to “here in the room with you now, you can’t hear what I’m saying, you don’t hear what I’m saying do you?” This could be about her record company not listening to her, or even that communicating through her art is no substitute for communicating directly with the people she loves (the latter being something of a recurring theme in Kate’s songs.)
Jig of Life
The fifth song is a conversation between Kate (or the woman lost at sea if you prefer) and her older self who tells her that she’s at a crossroads and that doing what she’s doing now (either allowing herself to drown or forsaking a family life by being too focussed on a musical career) will not allow her older self to exist; “this moment in time, it doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to me, and to your little boy and to your little girl.” In either context it’s a beautiful idea and it’s sung with such passion that you can see how important this future family life is and why Kate would feel the need to make sure that it happened – “never, never say goodbye to my part of your life…Let me live.”
(Note: I couldn’t help but notice that one of the things added in as part of the Before the Dawn concerts was a close up of Kate repeating “let me live.”)
“The fact that just from the distance of the Moon you can put your thumb up and you can hide the Earth behind your thumb. Everything that you’ve ever known, your loved ones, your business, the problems of the Earth itself—all behind your thumb. And how insignificant we really all are, but then how fortunate we are to have this body and to be able to enjoy loving here amongst the beauty of the Earth itself.” — Jim Lovell, Apollo 8
This is a problematic song to decipher in the context of the woman lost at sea as suddenly she’s an astronaut, or possibly an angel, looking down on Earth and then she’s the cause of the storm which presumably resulted in her being lost at sea in the first place. It’s also probably my favourite Kate Bush song and what I hear is her throwing out her doubt and any weakness to say ‘do you know what? I’m in control, I made all this happen’, “I can block you out, out of sight.” This seems to be the point where she makes up her mind up to let go and by doing so knows that she is the one in control – it’s a woman’s struggle for power and she’s won.
The Morning Fog
It could be a rescue but has always seemed more like a rebirth to me. And I do see this as a celebration of making a decision to choose life and of having left a bad situation behind, something supported by the lightness of the music compared to what goes before it. It’s also noticeable that the family members she refers to are Kate’s so it seems that this is very much a song about her rather than another character.
The connection between this reading of the song and the woman lost at sea is that both seem to be about a dark night of the soul and coming out of this stronger and with a better awareness of what’s important. This could well be what’s universal about this piece of music and why people can get strength and comfort from it in relation to their own experiences.
One important thing for me is that I do see a message in here from Kate Bush that she can’t put as much of herself into her music in the future without jeopardising other, more important, areas of her life. I’ve always felt that her music from The Sensual World onwards, while good, was never quite as powerful. I know some people would definitely argue with this but that’s probably why my interpretation of The Ninth Wave works for me and probably won’t for others.
And the songs on the first side of Hounds of Love? Obviously born in the same storm as The Ninth Wave but, for me, bursting with victory and validation of the right decision being made.