Each week, Frequency Rotation probes a different song with a science fiction or fantasy theme. Genre, musical quality, and overall seriousness may vary.
The fact that Kate Bush is a kind of a geek—albeit an impossibly cool and sexy geek—is common knowledge. Her music, after all, is suffused with the fantastic, and she’s contributed to the soundtracks to everything from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil to the big-screen adaptation of The Golden Compass. But when it comes to Bush’s science fiction side, it mostly boils down to one song: the frigid, depressing, microchip-obsessed “Deeper Understanding.”
Kate Bush’s arc as an artist—that is, from piano-caressing teenage songstress to icy, abstract, minimalist icon—is well documented. But it’s still a striking evolution. Starting with her fourth album, 1982’s The Dreaming, Bush pushed her songs into starker, darker territory, one that was most fully and fulfillingly explored in her 1985 masterpiece, The Hounds of Love. But it was Hounds’ follow-up, 1989’s The Sensual World, that unleashed what is perhaps her bleakest song, “Deeper Understanding.”
Reducing any Kate Bush song to a descriptor as simple as “bleak” is, of course, kind of dumb. Bush has always packed dizzying dimensions of nuance and emotion—and sometimes a subtle irony—into her songs. All of these qualities intertwine complexly throughout “Deeper Understanding.” Over a mechanistic, precisely calibrated opening, Bush whispers as if in the throes of infatuation: “As the people here grow colder, I turn to my computer / And spend my evenings with it like a friend / I was loading a new program I had ordered from a magazine / ‘Are you lonely, are you lost? This voice console is a must.’ / I press ’execute.’”
The levels of loss and meaning she sinks into the one word, “execute,” the terrifying yet exhilarating finality of it, is just one of many moments of the song’s hushed genius. And the irony Bush employs is far beyond satire or social commentary. Dwelling magically within, around, and above her dual subjects—that is, a girl and her desktop—she sings, “Well I’ve never felt such pleasure / Nothing else seemed to matter / I neglected my bodily needs / I did not eat, I did not sleep / The intensity increasing / ‘Til my family found me and intervened.” Bush’s character-in-songs bears her inhuman romantic interface with a detachment that underscores her paradoxical reality: Only an inanimate object can move her.
As poignant and breathtaking as “Deeper Understanding” was when it was released, it’s taken on a slightly different tone now that the Internet has become, quite literally, many people’s best friend—a place we comb daily for truth, companionship, and insight, all the while acutely aware that staring at a screen for hours on end is a pretty perverse way to go about it. Funny enough, Bush did revisit the themes of “Deeper Understanding” during the nascent Internet Age. But she didn’t do it alone. She contributed backing vocals to Prince’s 1996 song “My Computer,” a song whose melancholy if playful scenario (“I scan my computer, looking for a site / Somebody to talk to, funny and bright”) echoes Bush’s own apprehension and wonder—a paralyzing awe in the face of this brave new world in which we all, quite literally, withdraw in order to connect.
Jason Heller writes for The A.V. Club, plays guitar in too many bands, and sometimes takes his shoes off and throws them in the lake.