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The Dreaming’s sessions with Nick Launay exemplify the album’s episodic production. The songs originally engineered by Hugh Padgham explore relationships between headspace and environment and how unreleasing trauma and mental illness can be cathartic. Bush and Launay’s songs are teeming with trauma and catharsis. Frequently they anatomize historical subjects, particularly subaltern or marginalized narratives. An overarching focal point tends to be enunciating the unspoken. Perhaps this was Bush’s way of asserting agency over a largely masculine music industry that had thus far limited her and kept her from true leadership positions in the creation of her albums. “[It was] very dark and about pain and negativity and the way people treat each other badly,” Bush asserted to Canadian broadcaster Daniel Richer in 1985. “Perhaps the biggest influence on the last album was the fact that I was producing it and so I could actually do what I really wanted to for the first time.”
“Houdini” is the face of The Dreaming. It’s one of the only Bush sleeves where the image is supplied by the song. Its aspect, another creation of fraternal mainstay John Carder Bush, is a sepia photograph in medium closeup depicting a slightly agrestal Bush with her head tilted to the right, with her mouth open wide revealing a key on her tongue, which she passes to a faceless Del Palmer. This image derives from the lyrics of “Houdini,” which impart the fictionalized yet broadly historical experience of Bess Houdini, widow of premier escapologist Harry Houdini, who tries to contact her late husband through necromancy (“I wait at the table/hold hands with weeping strangers/wait for you/to join the group”). The relevant lyric “with a kiss I’d pass the key/and feel your tongue, teasing and receiving,” is unique among pop lyrics, as the overwhelming majority of them don’t contain idle recollections of Frenching a deceased spouse. It’s a bald-faced and ostentatiously move that flags how uninterested in notions of “normality” Bush is.
This furthermore indicates the subversive narratology Bush is pursuing. It’s quite boldly literal in the Carder Bush photo, where Del Palmer’s face is turned away from the frame. There’s an occlusion of “great man” narratives to “Houdini.” It’s named after one of the 20th century’s great performers, but it’s largely defined by his absence. As a result, the story has to be about the widowed Bess and her grief. Impressively, “Houdini” avoids elegy for the accomplishments of a Great Man, opting instead for the love Bess Houdini bore for her husband and the ecstatically weird lengths she went to demonstrate that.
The song is far from a stringent one. “Houdini” is fueled by anguished conniptions rather than melodic coherence. The verse initially sounds like “The Infant Kiss” or some other perfectly normal song with its piano balladry in Eb minor with a progression that finishes on a major tonic chord. It commences as a séance with mourners preparing to reach into the ether (“the tambourine jingle-jangles/the medium roams and rambles”). The refrain is the apex of Bush shrieks, culminating in a gravely, agonized “WITH YOUR LIFE/THE ONLY THING IN MY MIND/WE PULL YOU FROM THE WATER!” The result is hardly melodic — it’s willfully ugly, produced by Bush eating lots of chocolate and drinking milk to sabotage her own voice. Whether or not the experiment works, it doesn’t seem like Bush cares — she wants this to sound raw and ugly.
We’ve talked about The Dreaming’s equation of the mind and spirituality quite often, so running into a rationalist-leaning figure like Houdini is quite something. A man who sought to discredit mediums during his lifetime, Harry made a pact with Bess to attempt contact after his death with a passcode only they knew, which would prove the medium who discovered was legitimate. In the song, this even seems to work — “this is not trick of his/this is your magic.” Houdini specialized in illusions, but if said illusions worked, that seems about equivalent to his magic being real. Curiouser is how the song legitimizes the séance, as it seems to transcend spacetime as it takes Bess back to her past assisting her husband’s dangerous performances. “You hit the water” comes across as temporal fuckery of the kind found in Bush’s favorite movie, Don’t Look Now. Linearity this ain’t. Functionality is irrelevant to Bush. Often she tries for beauty, but just this once Kate Bush fiercely clutches onto the awfulness of emotional reality.
(Bush.)Personnel: Bush — vocals, piano, Fairlight, production. Weber — bass. Elliott — drums. Powell, Lawson — strings (writing and arrangement). Farrell — spoken word. Palmer — spoken word. Launay — engineer (backing tracks). Hardiman — engineer (overdubs). Backing tracks recorded at Townhouse Studios May – Jun ’81. Overdubs at Odyssey Aug – Dec ’81, Jan – Mar ’82. Mixed Mar – May ’82. Released on The Dreaming 13 September 1982. Issued as B-side to “Night of the Swallow” in Ireland, 21 November 1983.Photo: Bess Houdini and her husband (1907, Musée McCord).
October 7, 2020 @ 6:32 pm
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