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After a few weeks working with Bush in Townhouse Studios, a mollified Hugh Padgham was called to musical duties elsewhere. Bush commissioned the younger Nick Launay, who was coming off production duties on Public Image Ltd.’s drums-and-reverb LP Flowers of Romance, to replace Padgham. The close ages of the two collaborators (Bush was 22, Launay was 20) assisted their rush into youthful creative maximalism. “[It] really was like the kids are in control,” effused Launay. “I came from the punk rock thing, and to me she was punk rock.” Bush and Launay’s work together produced an attitude of kitchen sink realism, if you define kitchen sink realism as “we’ll throw the kitchen sink off a cliff and it’ll sound real neat!”
Bush’s newfound role as producer is at the heart of The Dreaming. For all intents and purposes, she was now completely in charge of her work and exerted her agency by trying out every idea she had. Collaborators were often stymied by her ideas (Aramaic instructions written in disappearing ink do not tend to endear a producer to their session musicians) — Brian Bath was particularly flummoxed, and Del Palmer has admitted in the years since The Dreaming’s release that Bush has since become “a bit more discerning.” To stake out her own territory meant Bush had to embrace uncertainty, resulting in the most restive and strangest record of her life.
Public response was ambiguous. In the years since its release, The Dreaming has gained a reputation as Bush’s most underrated album. This is a slight exaggeration, if a basically understandable one. The Dreaming peaked at #3 in the UK, but it domestically sold a relative paucity of 60,000 units (to compare, Never for Ever sold 100,000 UK units, and even Lionheart hit 300,000). It wasn’t close to a commercial failure by any means, but it was decidedly less popular than Bush’s prior work. This can be explained by a number of factors, from the obvious aesthetic ones (The Dreaming’s maximalism was viewed by some as a bridge too far for Bush), to timing (“Sat In Your Lap” predated the album’s release by over a year), and EMI’s timid promotional campaign. Reviews were mixed, if better than they’re sometimes declared in retrospect. The indelibly truculent Robert Christgau offered The Dreaming a conditionally approbatory review (“the most impressive Fripp/Gabriel-style art-rock album of the postpunk [sic] refulgence makes lines like ‘I love life’ and ‘some say knowledge is something that you never have’ say something”). Melody Maker’s Colin Irwin effused about Bush’s “fearsome twisted voice” for “put[ting] the fear of God in me,” while future Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant observed Bush’s efforts to “become less commercial.” Record Mirror’s Daniella Soave curtly acknowledged Bush’s ambitions while saying “until I’ve heard it another 50 times I haven’t a clue.” What stands out in the majority of reviews is their areas of accord: everyone agreed that The Dreaming was defined by multiplicity, weirdness, a distinct non-commercialism, and a willingness to try everything. Even if listeners couldn’t agree on whether The Dreaming worked, everyone had a grasp on what it was.
This degree of unified disagreement speaks volumes on the nature of The Dreaming. For a pointedly (and willfully) unkempt LP, its nucleus of formal ambition and complex emotional catharsis is remarkably consistent. The album boils down to an exploration of fairly close-knit concepts: the liberatory effects of madness in women, the untethering of the subconscious, the symbiosis of body and mind, and the aching voice of repressed people. Its ethos is a cathartic one, about freeing one’s emotions from self-imposed bondage. The resulting emotions can be scary, but The Dreaming treats that as neither positive nor negative, merely a fact of having emotions.
One perspective that appears throughout The Dreaming is that of childhood and play — it treats the untethering of the subconscious as revealing a small, confused child. From one perspective of maturity, people can be viewed as complex adult emotions and cynicism burying a repressed inner child. “Suspended in Gaffa” certainly lends itself to this reading. Panto-like in its musical qualities (and certainly in its music video, which we’ll get back to shortly), it’s a waltz in C major, playful and initially parsimonious. Par for the course in The Dreaming, the verse’s chord progressions follow the rhythm in shape, particularly with its descending patterns of two major chords followed by minor chords (V-IV-ii, then V-IV-vi-iii), with a result of nearly staccato chipperness and a less cheerful supertonic or submediant. Its buoyancy is something of a ploy though — Bush’s vocal, while acrobatic in its emphatic lunges towards certain syllables (“OUT/in the GARden/there’s HALF of a HEAVen”), maintains a certain reservation often running lyrics together (“Whenever I’ve sung this song I’ve hoped that my breath would hold out for the first few phrases, as there is no gap to breathe in,” Bush wrote later), as Bush sings primarily from the back of her throat with results that sound like she’s gulping the lyrics, likely a frustrating move to listeners with less patience for Bush’s sometimes unintelligible lyrics. “FEET Of MUD” and “IT ALL GOES SLO-MO” are certainly B.V.s for the ages.
Yet at the core of this excess, there’s a simplicity to “Suspended in Gaffa.” It has the same expansive and consumptive obsessions as its sister songs — youthful aporia, an obsession with an unreachable god, a desire to unite with the subconscious. Yet it filters this through a childlike, somewhat Carrollian filter, with a surfeit of internal rhymes, abstract nouns, and ambiguous pronouns like “out in the garden/there’s half of a heaven/and we’re only bluffing,” “I try to get nearer/but as it gets clearer/there’s something appears in the way,” “I pull out the plank and say/thankee for yanking me back/to the fact that there’s always something to distract.”
The lyric is an endless series of prevarications, often relating to knowledge, or the unattainability of it (see “Sat in Your Lap”). The refrain’s “not till I’m ready for you,” “can I have it all now?/we can’t have it all,” “but they’ve told us/unless we can prove that we’re doing it/we can’t have it all” speak to an “all or nothing” approach, not identifying exactly what’s at stake so much as its urgency. Desire gets codified as an end in itself, often for a god (“I caught a glimpse of a god/all shining and bright”) — “until I’m ready for you” gives away the game (constructive spiritual union with a deity is impossible if one is unready to consent). “The idea of the song is that of being given a glimpse of ‘God’ — something that we dearly want — but being told that unless we work for it, we will never see it again, and even then, we might not be worthy of it,” Bush explained to her fan club. Tapping into the subconscious is a difficulty — when one has a glimpse of something wondrous, there’s a desperation to retrieve the feelings associated with it. “Everything or nothing” can be a neurodivergent impulse, but it’s also how a taste of the sublime works.
The nature of aporia in “Suspended in Gaffa” is cinematic. There’s the title, obviously, referring to the line “am I suspended in gaffa?,” itself a reference to gaffer (or “gaffa”) tape, which is commonly used in film and stage productions. The laboriousness of cinema is inferred a few times (“it all goes slo-mo”), as reflections and manipulation, staples of cinema, get pulled into the mix. Bush even goes quasi-Lacanian at one point; nudging herself with “that girl in the mirror/between you and me/she don’t stand a chance of getting anywhere at all,” a moment of amusing self-deprecation.
The music video, while counterintuitively simple in its setup of Bush dancing on her own in a barn, is similarly weird. Bush’s hair is made up to twice the height of her head as she dances in a purple jumpsuit, slowly jogging in place and thrashing her arms on the floor like an adolescent Job on her rural ash pile. In a pleasantly domestic turn, Bush’s mother Hannah appears (shockingly) as Bush’s mother. The resulting video is both tender and discordant, the ethos of “Suspended in Gaffa” in microcosm.
Bush’s fight with aporia moves forward. She mixes religious metaphors like a hermeneuticist in a Westminster pub (“it’s a plank in me eye,” taken from Matthew 7:5, is adjuncted by “a camel/who’s trying to get through it,” a quiet subversion of the Talmudic “eye of a needle” axiom, cited by Christ in the Synoptic Gospels and additionally by the Qu’ran 7:40), grasping fragments of faiths, mediums, and metaphors in their simplest form. The results are crucially inchoate, as the perspective of a child so often is. Yet through that rudimentary perspective comes a different understanding of emotional truths than one usually finds from an adult point-of-view. Fragments and naïveté are by no means inherently less scholarly than a more mature perspective; sometimes, they’re the most efficacious tools a person has for exploring the ridiculous and sublime.
(Bush.) Personnel: Bush, K. — vocals, piano, strings. Elliott — drums. Palmer — bass. Bush, P. — strings, mandolin. Lawson — synclavier. Launay — engineer (backing tracks). Hardiman — engineer (overdubs). Cooper — engineer (mastering). Backing tacks recorded at May/June 1981 at Townhouse Studios, Shepherd’s Bush. Overdubs recorded at Odyssey Studios, Marylebone, West End and Advision Studios, Fitzrovia from August 1981 to January 1982, 4-and-a-half months. Mixed at the Townhouse from March to 21 May, 1982. Issued as a single 2 November 1982. Photo of Kate and Hannah Bush by Kindlight.