I graduated in the middle of a pandemic and promptly spent my early 20s sitting in my childhood bedroom, unemployed, watching as everyone around me seemingly had no trouble jumping into adulthood proper. During this time, Kate Bush’s 1982 album The Dreaming was playing on an almost constant loop in the background. She wrote it between the ages of 22 and 24, and though she had found success in her late teens, the lyrics gave me some hope that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way, and that perhaps my feelings were a symptom of my age and not a true reflection of reality.
Kate Bush describes it as her “she’s gone mad” album, and it’s not hard to see why. Replete with didgeridoos, donkey braying, and screeching so gravelly that she had to down a pint of milk before recording, The Dreaming is a manic, panicked album. The first track, ‘Sat in Your Lap’, perfectly introduces the anxieties underlying the album, the same anxiety that I was feeling as I rotted away in my bedroom. The almost child-like rhythm and cadence of lines such as “my goal is moving near / it says look I’m over here / then it up and disappears” underlines the feeling of frustration at one’s involuntary arrested development.
‘Suspended in Gaffa’ builds on this theme, instead focusing on the frenzied desire to “have it all” and the fear of failure that accompanies it. Here, Bush contrasts timorous whispers of “I’m scared of the changes” with the chorus: “suddenly my feet are feet of mud / it all goes slow-mo / I don’t know why I’m crying / am I suspended in gaffa?”
These were the songs that I screamed the words to after every job rejection, but The Dreaming is focused on more than just the anxiety of losing a race you had no choice in entering. It’s just as much about becoming your own person, another, more positive trial that comes with entering one’s 20s. ‘Leave It Open’ explores the process of developing confidence and a strong sense of self through the metaphor of a caged bird, among other things: “I kept it in a cage / watched it weeping / but I made it stay”. As she learns to “let the weirdness in”, however, the song morphs from a single voice singing intelligible lyrics over a recognisable beat to an almost ethereal chanting overlayed with strange-sounding cries.
Conversely, ‘Get Out of My House’ is about the harrowing ordeal of asserting boundaries as you affirm your personhood. Of all the songs on The Dreaming, this one is perhaps the one I hold dearest. Bush imagines of herself as a house, slamming the door against intruders, and “[cleaning] the stains” of previous intrusions. The final section of the song becomes almost like a fairytale in its structure; a man forces entry into the house, so Bush turns into a bird to escape, but the man turns into the wind to follow her. It is only when she resolves to “change into the mule” that she defeats him as the song devolves into impassioned, frantic braying. Rather than shutting herself up and living a guarded existence, she embraces her stubbornness and learns to set boundaries.
It’s disappointing but not necessarily a surprise that The Dreaming was not well received and remains Bush’s worst selling album to date. There’s not a song on there that’s good single material, with even the most straightforward songs being just a bit too weird for radio play, and though Bush’s previous albums certainly displayed similar lyrical complexity and occasional screechiness, The Dreaming dialled it up to 11, especially with her copious use of the Fairlight CMI. It was heavily criticised for its maximalism, with Colin Irwin labelling it “twisted overkill”. The critical response was, I think, somewhat unfair, and perhaps a result The Dreaming simply being more avant-garde than what had been expected based on her previous work. The feeling of falling inalterably behind in life before one’s life has even begun, the feeling of being trapped, of wasting time, of wanting everything now and not being able to get anything – those things can hardly be represented without maximalism.
The album has been reappraised in recent years, with Uncut calling it a “multi-layered, polyrhythmic and wildly experimental album” that “remains a landmark work”. Bush herself has also revisited it in later years, expressing surprise at how “angry” it is. It certainly is angry, and it’s odd that during the tail end of punk, Bush was excluded from the expression of loud, musical anger, but it’s heartening to see the rawness and sincerity of this album finally receiving the recognition it deserves. Without The Dreaming, I doubt we would have artists like Björk and Mitski. The Dreaming speaks less to me now than it did a year ago, something for which I am grateful. The nature of the album is that it is only relatable for a brief, horrible time in one’s life. But as I move from my Dreaming era into my Sensual World era (Bush’s more mature 1989 album), I count my lucky stars that I had that album to guide me through it and let me know that I wasn’t alone.
Image “What are you listening to?” by bought books is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.