|Years active:||Genres:||Related artists:|
|1975 -||Art Pop, Singer/Songwriter||n/a|
The trouble with trying to summarise Kate Bush is that you're talking about the person who codified so many of the rules that it feels redundant to even describe it. Bush is the ur-example of the auteur artist who spends their time honing their craft in their fortress of solitude, unhindered by any outside influence: and despite (or because of) this, she's managed to maintain both a constant critical and commercial favour, retaining her sphere of influence from one decade to another. It's such a cliché now to compare other artists (particularly other women) to her now out of the flimsiest of resemblances that no one seriously does it anymore, and yet the cliché exists because it is true. Bush is a genuinely iconic artist who created such a distinguishable set of rules for herself (most important of which is the complete inadherence to any other rulesets) that she's become the precedent for nearly every other musician operating even vaguely within the same genre boundaries, who prefers taking their time in their studio over a more regular band activity.
What helps with the certain kind of legendary aura around Bush is her relatively glacial pace of release, particularly after the first couple of decades of her career: she's released only around ten studio albums ever since the 1970s, and that's if you count her album of re-recorded old songs. This means that all her albums come with some kind of special status because the gaps in-between highlight the importance of each one. It's true that there's a few albums of hers that do get cast in the shade of the bigger ones, but even they've never been forgotten and attract discourse and discussion as much as the others, even if for wholly different reasons. Bundled up with some of her other "quirks" - the refusal to tour after the 1970s, the hermit years in the 1990s, all the curious anecdotal stories you hear from the people around her that depict an entirely different person to the one in her albums - and not only does she come across as something mythical herself, but going through her discography really does feel different to binging on most back catalogues: like you're going through important milestones each time, rather than just albums after another. She's kind of like her occasional collaborator Peter Gabriel in that sense, and it's no wonder I got into Bush's music after already having been a fan of Gabriel's solo career - the two are basically genderflipped counterparts in very many ways.
But at the end of the day she isn't anything otherwordly, she's "just" an artist - and one with incredible vision, range and ambition. Of course it's a little sad that she hasn't been as active as other artists, but it means each of her albums has some weight around them - even the couple of lesser ones. She's a one-of-a-kind songwriter who frequently brings in ideas most other artists would find too odd or ill-fitting and makes them make sense. There's always something unexpected around the corner, but she never sacrifices the art of melody or a great hook for experimentation for its own sake. She's a pop artist at the end of the day, it's just her vision of what pop music is extends way beyond the horizon. There are artists whom I love more than her, but there are very few who are as excitingly adventurous and unpredictable as her.
One more thing: my favourite Kate Bush factoid is that she's the reason we have hands-free microphones - an invention brought on by her insistence to not limit her choreography by holding a microphone for her 1970s live shows. Even though she's got a huge cultural footprint, that little piece of pub quiz trivia is still somewhat elusive and I just love how she's managed to avoid a wide-spread acknowledgment in her role with something that's now common as anything.
- 1978: The Kick Inside
- 1978: Lionheart
- 1980: Never for Ever
- 1982: The Dreaming
- 1985: Hounds of Love
- 1989: The Sensual World
- 1993: The Red Shoes
- 2005: Aerial
- 2011: Director's Cut
- 2011: 50 Words for Snow
- 2016: Before the Dawn
- 2019: The Other Sides
THE KICK INSIDE
|Release year:||Rating:||Key tracks:|
|1978||6||"The Saxophone Song", "Wuthering Heights", "Oh to Be in Love"|
1) Moving; 2) The Saxophone Song; 3) Strange Phenomena; 4) Kite; 5) The Man with the Child in His Eyes; 6) Wuthering Heights; 7) James and the Cold Gun; 8) Feel It; 9) Oh to Be in Love; 10) L'amour Looks Something Like You; 11) Them Heavy People; 12) Room for the Life; 13) The Kick Inside
The humble and rather normal beginning. Apart from that one song you know.
For a young solo singer/songwriter it's hard to imagine a better launchpad than what Kate Bush got for her debut. David Gilmour's backing guaranteed she could get nearly all the creative freedom she could want, not to mention the label deal and the PR push to begin with. The only concession she had to make was that she had to use session musicians rather than her own backing band, but all the hired hands involved with the album were seasoned pros who clearly understood her vision and who clicked not just with the songs but with each other as well. Above all, she had a calling card as triumphant as "Wuthering Heights" up her sleeve - one of the all-time iconic debut singles and genuinely an awe-inspiring song of the magnitude that any artist would kill to have somewhere in their discography, much less as their first single. The odds are so stacked in favour of Bush that it's easy to forget she's barely 19 here and, to put it politely, still learning the ropes.
It wouldn't be fair or correct to call her the album's weak point - she's deservedly the star of this show and commands the songs with confidence - but she is the greenest thing on what is otherwise a staggeringly professional production and it does show across the songs chosen. This is especially true if you're coming onto this album with any kind of expectation of what "a Kate Bush album" should sound like whether that's through her reputation or having heard any of her later works first (which I imagine is the likely case these days). For that matter, even if you're only aware of "Wuthering Heights" that's still the case because in all of its arrangement, structure and performance it stands out massively from the rest of The Kick Inside. "Wuthering Heights" is a colossus of a song that's constantly on the brink of overwhelming itself with another new trick around the corner but which never falters, only boldens: just when you think it couldn't get bigger, it throws in front of you something like a guitar solo straight from a prog rock guitar hero album. Every little detail and aspect of its arrangement - and there are many - are put to powerful use, to weaponise Bush's eccentrically rambling verse melodies and the chorus that must have dropped the jaws of every label head who heard it for the first time to the floor. It's by and far the most fleshed-out, most deftly arranged and most ambitious song on the entire record, something that in a logical sense should've appeared a good couple of albums down the line and with more experience in her belt. Instead, it's here and it's by and far the most accomplished thing on the album and you won't hear anything else like it on The Kick Inside.
Outside its big centrepiece song, you can tell Bush is still a young songwriter. A good one for the most parts, but her writing is more conventional and straightforward in a manner that doesn't feel entirely by intent, and her lyrics are rather matter-of-fact and often very obviously indebted to whatever media she's consumed recently. The Kick Inside is at its best when you do start to hear her more recognisable elements emerge: the deliciously fluttering chorus and swiveling structure of "Oh to Be in Love" where she moulds a pop song in her own image, the atmospheric waves of "Moving" and its counterpart "The Saxophone Song" where those waves are turned into a lush prog-pop dream (with some wonderfully delirious synth arpeggios towards the end), or "James and the Cold Gun" which probably doesn't work quite as much as it would want to but Kate Bush doing a cowboy rock anthem is exactly the kind of off-kilter firecracker the album benefits from. You can hear a talent emerge, rearing its head across the album on and off. Though also on the flipside that same inventiveness does also lead onto the cod-reggae flavoured "Kite", which is exactly the kind of awkward idea you bury in your debut and never play again once you come to your senses.
At thirteen songs The Kick Inside also feels oddly long despite its perfectly average 40-odd minute length, thanks to a number of songs particularly towards the latter half which sound like lesser versions of others you've heard so far already: "Feel It", "L'amour Looks Something Like You" and "Room for the Life" come to mind in particular. Bush's backing band here is as fantastic a set of session musicians as you can get and the production still stands up, as even now this sounds wonderfully warm with some delightful instrumental flair (I heavily recommend headphones for this, especially to appreciate those gorgeous basslines); the downside is that every song bar "Wuthering Heights" and the three Bush solo pieces (of which the tender "The Man With the Child in His Eyes" is the highlight) is treated with the same approach, which makes much of the album sound alike to some extent and in turn really highlights the parts where the writing is weaker than elsewhere. I always feel it's unfair to judge an album based on what its creator would go on to do in the future, but in the case of The Kick Inside it's nigh impossible to avoid doing so when one of Bush's fortés in every single other album of hers is the range of her palette. Here the one particular shade used across the entire record mainly points out that she's still not quite there.
I may be lowballing the rating here a little bit because The Kick Inside is an enjoyable listen but I also don't think this would be quite as remembered if it didn't have "Wuthering Heights" or if it didn't have the retrospective benefit of her legacy afterwards keeping its memory alive. Only about half of this is genuinely remarkable, while the rest paint a picture of a young musician's humble beginnings. Which is, well, enjoyable certainly to some extent but I don't think anyone really pines to hear Bush in the role of just a frontwoman of a standard 70s pop band
Physically: My copy is a rather barebones CD issue - Discogs says it's a 1994 release based on the data. As such it's what you'd expect from an early CD reissue of a pre-CD era album: generic jewel case with a black spine, lyrics booklet with everything in plain black on white with no additional artwork or anything fancy.
|Release year:||Rating:||Key tracks:|
|1978||8||"Symphony in Blue", "Wow", "Hammer Horror"|
1) Symphony in Blue; 2) In Search of Peter Pan; 3) Wow; 4) Don’t Push Your Foot on the Heartbrake; 5) Oh England My Lionheart; 6) Fullhouse; 7) In the Warm Room; 8) Kashka from Baghdad; 9) Coffee Homeground; 10) Hammer Horror
General consensus says this is supposed to be a rushed follow-up, but really? This is where Kate finds her steady footing.
Am I listening to a completely different album than everyone else is? The general consensus on this says that this is supposed to be the weaker of the two albums Bush released in 1978, and Bush herself agrees. Certainly it's got the recipe for disaster, having been released only about eight months after The Kick Inside when the label wanted capitalise on its success, leaving Bush scrambling to start the new sessions. But if anything, it's incredible just how much Bush had developed in that scant over half a year. This is so much more confident, diverse and so much more her than the debut was.
Granted there’s nothing on Lionheart that matches “Wuthering Heights” directly, but that song was a fluke within The Kick Inside anyway. Lionheart does however follow in that song's footsteps in terms of the ambition that the debut's torchlight song alone exemplified, and overall the album as a whole is far more consistent than the debut was. Bush is far more adventurous, playful and even a little surreal here: there's a couple of of songs that carry over from the more straightforward style of the last album, but on the whole she's started to treat songs like movies where she's twisting her songwriting and arrangements to suit the stories she wants to tell like an auteur director. Thus while it's consistent, it's also a remarkably diverse album: there's little to connect the Disney dreams of "In Search of Peter Pan", the "Wuthering Heights"-esque rises of "Wow", the glam stomp of "Hammer Horror", the rock musical centrepiece "Don't Push Your Foot on the Heartbrake (absolutely written pun first, music later), the wistful solemnity of "Oh England My Lionheart" and whatever the hell is happening in "Coffee Homeground" beyond just that they exist on the same album. That, and the general emphasis on laying out a particular tone and atmosphere for each song through the production and arrangements which carries through track to track: while for most parts Bush has kept the session band and the producer from the last album, she's brought out more synthesizers and a handful of slightly less conventional instruments on the table this time around and they do a lot of textural background work across the songs. A little bit of the debut's classic rock warmth has been lost in the process for sure, but the trade-off is that the sound is deeper and more compelling.
The result is that Lionheart is a lot of fun to listen through. Bush herself certainly sounds like she's having a ball: the cheeky lyrics and the ludicrous "wow wow wow wow wow!" chorus of "Wow", the roaring rock posturing and stabbing strings in "Hammer Horror", the extended outro of "Kashka from Baghdad" which somehow outstages the fact that she's doing a gay love ballad in 1978, the whole of "Coffee Homeground" where it sounds like she had a mental breakdown in the studio and went and did a pop song as a result (is... is that a German accent she's haphazardly putting on?). But there's just as much delicacy and grace throughout, with Bush reaching towards sentimentality and even sensuality throughout (she may sing "the more I think of sex the better it gets!" with gusto in "Symphony in Blue" but even that sounds cheekily flirty rather than raunchy). "Wow" itself balances on the line: it's the canon Reader's Digest selection off this album for a good reason because much like "Wuthering Heights", it steals the attention through its cosmically sizeable chorus, but what I love most about it is how that chorus breaks through from the waves of lush synthesizer textures that hint at an entirely different song before the curtain drop happens. The quasi-title track lends its name to the album for a reason because its theatricality is quintessential Bush and arguably demonstrates her growth as an artist here the most, Bush narrating the last thoughts of a shot down WW2 pilot through primarily just gentle piano and recorders but with big helpings of charisma and drama: a stage actor in the guise of a musician, in a whole different act than she was earlier in the same year.
I honestly didn't even plan to make this point when I started this review but having noticed how I've inadvertently constantly referred to movies, acting, musicals and other types of drama, the common thread rising from Lionheart is Bush realising her penchant for assuming roles and portraying stories other than her own, even if otherwordly or dream-like in nature. She's stepping outside her own room lyrically (there's little of the slight autobiographical bent of The Kick Inside present here) and in tandem also musically, making sure that each play she stars in has a unique soundtrack to go with it. It's not a coincidence that the weakest parts of Lionheart are the ones most reminiscent of the debut, i.e. the dual feature of "Fullhouse" and "In the Warm Room" which leave a bit of a lull in the middle of the album (though "In the Warm Room" is arguably a better interpretation of the debut's "Feel It" regardless): on an album where she's making leaps and bounds to new ideas and fearlessly jumping into even slightly wilder ideas, the most "ordinary" songs undoubtedly feel a little overshadowed. The singer/songwriter-as-actress trait would become a driving force in her career and here she's starting to own up that role.
Bolder, sharper, more unique and with an astounding amount of development in just over half a year - I know I'm often a bit of a contrarian but I really can't comprehend how this has been twisted into being the rushed follow-up failure?
Physically: We're still in the early CD packaging style as The Kick Inside, but there's colour and some attempts at liner artwork now! "Oh England My Lionheart" even gets a handwritten lyric sheet on its own page instead of the typeface the other songs get.
NEVER FOR EVER
|Release year:||Rating:||Key tracks:|
|1980||6||"Babooshka", "Army Dreamers", "Breathing"|
1) Babooshka; 2) Delius (Song of Summer); 3) Blow Away (For Bill); 4) All We Ever Look For; 5) Egypt; 6) The Wedding List; 7) Violin; 8) The Infant Kiss; 9) Night Scented Stock; 10) Army Dreamers; 11) Breathing
A second start, with the wobble to go with it.
Never for Ever is somewhat of a second debut for Bush. Recorded primarily with her original bandmates and friends who'd been sidelined on the first two albums (thanks to executive meddling) and featuring her first stab at self-production (though co-produced with Jon Kelly), it's Bush re-introducing and perhaps even re-establishing herself as an artist. The first two albums were rooted in traditional singer/songwriter arrangements and intended for a typical rock band to play, meanwhile on Never for Ever Bush has discovered synthesizers and now has access to entire worlds at the tip of her fingers, without being confined by the more typical guitar-bass-drums setting. It's not an album defined by its use of synthesizers (and it's certainly not a "synthesizer album" in the more contemporary understanding of that concept) - in fact, it's not quite defined by any singular thing at all. The album cover is actually quite apt for the record, with the way she's releasing a plethora of wild and untamed ideas into her personal playground. Never for Ever is the start of Bush treating her albums as wholly personal projects that seem public by happenstance.
Not that you'd guess it from "Babooshka", which is actually quite unrepresentative of the album even though it's considered the record's signature song. It's either an intentional soft landing for the new album or a leftover too good not to be used, but either way it's neatly in line with Bush's previous theatrical anthems that storm ahead with big choruses: this cycle's equivalent of "Wuthering Heights" or "Wow", but with the camp dial turned up even higher than before with the bellowing, downright scenery-chewing drama of it all. Bush hasn't completely foregoed her established sound from the first two albums and there's a few reminders of where she started scattered across the tracklist ("Blow Away" in dedication to her stage lighting director who'd passed away mid-tour, "Violin" that had already been around for a few years and played on that same tour), but they mostly feel like leftovers she was too attached to leave behind. "Babooshka" still has the pow and bang you've come to expect from her big singles and triumphs, pushing away any notions of it sounding perhaps a little too familiar by the sheer power of its centrepiece chorus; the revenge fantasy of "The Wedding List" almost carries the same strength, if a little less implicitly but once it gets going it turns out to be a surprisingly sweet deep cut.
Majority of Never for Ever is made out of more exploratory material: not experimental as such, but the works of a person who's found a new way of working and is now testing every single option and setting and available. That's where both the strengths and weakness of Never for Ever lie. On the one end, you have something like "Army Dreamers", a delirious and surreal waltz that's both heartbreaking and amusingly sassy at the same time, sounding completely unique to Bush herself and probably launching a thousand adventurous singer/songwriters just on its own. "Breathing" takes a little bit of her former works and then drowns it in atmosphere and texture, creating something close to a prog rock not-quite power ballad with an ethereal bend; "Delius" skips form and structure altogether as it merrily frolics along its pastoral prettiness and distinctive backing vocals, like a song that was born the second Bush found a particular setting in her synthesizer she liked. Lionheart already showcased Bush's strength in taking a concept (lyrical or musical) and then diving into it head-on, creating a full-scale presentation of that idea in the trappings of a catchy song: Never for Ever is much more of that, done more headily.
And then sometimes it just doesn't work. "Egypt" is the work of someone who heard an exotic instrument and wrote a song around it so blatant the title is almost naïve, "All We Ever Look For" is twee and quirky but in a way that comes across almost stereotypical for Bush, the thematic provocation of "The Infant Kiss" fades away the moment establishes itself to go nowhere and "Night Scented Stock" is such a forgettable interlude that you almost dismiss it.. A lot of these songs share characteristics with the "winners" of the lot and you could easily twist the descriptions in this paragraph and the previous one to suit either side, but that isn't an indication of me being incomprehensible but rather that everything here could easily have gone either way. Never for Ever is carefree and adventurous but it is also at times clumsy and partly unbaked, the two flipsides of Bush tinkering around and figuring out a new voice.
I, too, am split. Even with the negativity above it's still good to understand that Bush at her mediocre day is still more interesting than most; however, those dents in the armour really stand out when they sit next to more polished songs going just as wild into their chosen directions and succeeding at it. I wasn't just being glib in the beginning when I said that this reminds me of a debut album, with the same wavering ability to establish your artistic voice. The last two albums feel practically brushed off here and there is a very direct line between what Bush is doing here and the next couple of albums, built from the same parts but refined: Never for Ever effectively sets the tone for Bush's music for the next decades to come. It's frustrating though, if only in the sense that you can tantalisingly hear those seedlings throughout the record but only a few times does she really grow them into something special here. She's still got a few creases to iron out in her next battle plan and it makes Never for Ever slippery to grab onto, slightly stumbling while dazzling with ideas - and that arguably makes it her trickiest album to latch onto.
Physically: Continuing with the basic packaging, though lyrics booklets are slowly growing a little more interesting: still mostly just text but with some colour and extra artwork again.
|Release year:||Rating:||Key tracks:|
|1982||8||"Sat in Your Lap", "Suspended in Gaffa", "Get Out of My House"|
1) Sat in Your Lap; 2) There Goes a Tenner; 3) Pull Out the Pin; 4) Suspended in Gaffa; 5) Leave It Open; 6) The Dreaming; 7) Night of the Swallow; 8) All the Love; 9) Houdini; 10) Get Out of My House
"She's gone mad!" - and what wonderful madness it is.
The infamous "she's gone mad" album - a phrase coined by Bush herself, who has over the years been more than happy to keep building on the album's mythology and reputation with her anecdotes around its creation. Days locked up in the studio learning how to operate complicated synthesizers from scratch to use them exactly how she wanted to, self-producing to gain complete creative freedom to execute all her out-of-the-box arrangement choices and the general insanity that followed - all building up to a record that even today leaves people confused in its wake and which has long since become canonised as one of the weirdest albums in the old school rock canon.
You'd expect it to sound quaint for modern ears, but The Dreaming remains a wonderfully weird and baffling album. Try as I think otherwise (to avoid it being just another cliché), it's also the first thing that comes to mind about it and one of the best ways to describe it. The Dreaming is a melting pot created as the result of the perfect moment in time when a wild creative spirit was yearning to challenge herself, just as modern technology brought forward a number of new tricks to sate that hunger. The music on The Dreaming is twisted and turned around itself, jerking back and forth trying to break free: lead by curveball rhythms with unconventional drum patterns (Peter Gabriel's III and particularly its percussion is an acknowledged inspiration, so much so these two albums are downright siblings), arcane synthwork, a plethora of samples popping up throughout and a choir of vocals singing and shrieking in various accents and tones. The classic songwriting of Bush's earlier albums isn't absent but it's been transformed and obscured, and the big hit singles have been unceremoniously dumped. There are altogether too many ideas going on at once at all times and still somehow that chaos has been turned into something resembling its own anarchistic order. It's a bewildering creature of a record and age has not tarnished its strangeness.
It's the aforementioned voices that truly define The Dreaming - most of them from Kate herself but there's plenty of others as well (from David Gilmour to animal impersonators). Bush transforms her voice in sudden, unexpected jerks - shrieking countermelodies, switching tones partway through a line, gently whispering in one moment and imitating a demonic donkey the next. You've just about recovered from her inexplicable decision to do a whole song in a constantly slipping mockney accent when suddenly she throws in her take on an Aussie twang, which probably is the worst attempt at an accent across my entire music collection - later on there's also... French?. Bush is utilising her entire and incredibly impressive vocal range across The Dreaming but she sounds posssessed, channeling a multitude of characters and people within her that jarringly and randomly take over. There's a lot to talk about the general musical arrangements and production found on The Dreaming (the now-vintage synths are all over the album in most wonderful ways) but it's its use of voices that houses its most eccentric ideas: the chant that passes as the chorus of "The Dreaming", the way Bush weaves through a number of vocal tones and tics across the otherwise relatively straightforward "Suspended in Gaffa", the animalistic braying in "Get Out of My House", the screaming in "Houdini"... But once you get past the initial shock, the range of vocals becomes the album's forté. It's rather awe-inspiring and practically beautiful in how texturally Bush uses her vocals. That's nothing new for her, but there's no inhibition to be found here and her tics roam wild.
Scrub a little deeper still and while The Dreaming absolutely is a wild, experimental record - one of the archtypical examples of a solo musician breaking through their confinements with gusto - it is also a pop record. It's simply one that's been processed through a filter of genuinely manic energy which may sometimes hide how catchy and even beautiful the album can be. There's a clear precedent to its steps in the more experimental parts of Never for Ever like "Army Dreamers" or "Delius", which were already playing around with the concept of how differently Bush could mould a pop song in her own name. Which is the best place to take her music towards and here that process is taken to its logical conclusion. Despite all their quirks there is ultimately some strong songwriting in the core of each track: "Sat in Your Lap" and "There Goes a Tenner" are clearly this album's versions of Bush's former big single cuts regardless of their disorienting curveball structures, "All the Love" and "Houdini" are as tender and aching as any of Bush's more canonised ballads, and the fae-like grace and lightweightnedness of "Suspended in Gaffa" and the folk music leaning "Night of the Swallow" even feel oddly soothing as they tone down some of the album's zeal. With its thundering drums and centrepiece guitar riffs "Get Out of My House" is as close as Bush gets to her take on stadium rock, and even its The Shining -inspired insanity and eventual spiraling into madness can't hide how it damn right flexes its hooks and melodies that serve as the stable eye of the storm. The Dreaming is never weird for weird's sake, everything has its purpose - and that's what makes it special.
Therefore, what I love the most in The Dreaming is how it is both uncompromising and at times genuinely batshit crazy, and yet it's also a warm and embracing set of songs: like someone with hard to breach personal defenses but once you do gain their trust, they become a true soul mate. Even at its most abstract (what in the name of all that's holy is even going on in the title track?) it's far from alienating, always making sure there's something to hold onto to help you pull yourself closer and more comfortable. It's also just a whole lot of fun, which I don't ever really see being brought up when people talk about this album: the bank robbery caper "There Goes a Tenner" has the cheek of a classic British sketch show that's emphasised by the overtly synthetic horns and bouncy rhythm, "Sat in Your Lap" sounds like its running laps at the edge of a breakdown but there's a nod and a wink to its hummingbird mania which leaves it exhausting but rather jolly, and even "Get Out of My House" goes so over the top in its final cacophony that it's clear Bush was having a ton of fun devising it. It's an album that really rewards multiple listens because there are so many different aspects to it and often they're playing at the same time, and those do sometimes get drowned by its self-imposed strangeness: I haven't even gotten around to mentioning the strikingly atmospheric "Leave It Open" and "Pull Out the Pin" which show yet another side to the album- but they are worth a mention even if awkwardly wedged in. Beneath its surrealist tendencies is a lot of sweetness, melody and sheer staying power, thanks to its strong songs powering the journey. They don't get mentioned much there are downright canonic classics, above all "Sat in Your Lap" and "Suspended in Gaffa" which are two of Bush's all-time great singles. The cards that she plays here clearly also pave the road that the rest of her discography would walk on, making The Dreaming the centre point for the iteration of Bush as a musician we now most associate with her. So even if it's not actually her best record, in that way this might just define her the best: at times refined and immaculate, sometimes haunting and beautiful, with a little touch of humour and wit and a good heaping of the unexpected and strange.
Physically: Another classic old school CD packaging: jewel case with a black spine, booklet with lyrics laid out simply and some photos.
HOUNDS OF LOVE
|Release year:||Rating:||Key tracks:|
|1985||8||"Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)", "Hounds of Love", "Cloudbusting"|
Hounds of Love: 1) Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God); 2) Hounds of Love; 3) The Big Sky; 4) Mother Stands for Comfort; 5) Cloudbusting; The Ninth Wave: 6) And Dream of Sheep; 7) Under the Ice; 8) Waking the Witch; 9) Watching You Without Me; 10) Jig of Life; 11) Hello Earth; 12) The Morning Fog; 1997 Reissue Bonus Tracks: 13) The Big Sky (Meteorological Mix); 14) Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God) (12" Mix); 15) Be Kind to My Mistakes; 16) Under the Ivy; 17) Burning Bridge; 18) My Lagan Love
Really two completely independent albums under one cover, and Bush showing off she can pull off both.
Hounds of Love is a set of two albums bound together inside one disc: much more so than most albums that claim to change tact halfway through, more than even Bush's own later reprises of the concept. Torn between restoring her status as a powerhouse hitmaker and continuing to develop her more experimental and conceptual ideas even further, she took the third option and did both. It may not be a double album in length, but it is very clearly a double album by design. It's likely why it has risen as her canonical favourite, as it draws a firm line between both but still lets them hold hands, offering everything to everyone.
Really, it's those first five songs alone - the "Hounds of Love" side - that would be enough to crown Hounds of Love a classic already. For some people Bush's music had become too insular and too weird, and her answer to those criticisms was to use the same toolset that she had wielded on The Dreaming to create a set of deadly precise pop hits that took inspiration from her sonic adventures on the previous album and morphed them into gigantic choruses. The result is three of some of the most iconic singles of the 1980s, and "The Big Sky" - which isn't a slight against the effervescent joy of that song, it simply gets inadvertedly buried under the overwhelming stature of its peers. The enormous and defiant "Running Up That Hill" - iconised as her definitive song, which is a fair shout - and the thrillingly growing "Cloudbusting" are giants of such magnitude that describing them feels pointless because surely anyone who's tuned enough into music to read amateur reviews is more than familiar with them already. I agree with the superlatives, too: they're as thrilling on the hundreth play as they were on the first, immediately arresting in the sheer might of the craft involved. Yet over time it's the ecstatically frolicking "Hounds of Love" which has become my personal favourite, spending three life-affirming minutes in a rush of cello-sawing excitement of witnessing open fields for the first time in its life and being allowed to roam free. It's an explosive tour-de-force barrage for the ages that Bush launches with the knowing confidence of someone who is absolutely aware of the quality of the song. The solitary non-single "Mother Stands for Comfort" is perhaps the obvious outsider of the lot, but its calmer and more atmospheric approach is a well-timed break from the grand pop showdowns and carries a beauty that allows it to stand up for itself in such intimidating company. It also prepares the listener towards the second half's more patient nature in advance, when things take a topsy-turvy turn.
The Ninth Wave on the other hand is not a set of big statement songs; it's a story split into short chapters. Bush had waded head first into conceptual waters in some of her prior material (in particular large sections of The Dreaming), but the second half of Hounds of Love is a narrative suite of songs integrated into one another, where the entire 26 minutes operates hand-in-hand. The actual story - a shipwrecked woman fading in and out of various hallucinations - is largely laid out in surreal vignettes with the occasional brief moment of clarity, but it's the mood that is evoked the clearest. Anxiety, loneliness, fear of the unknown, the sudden peace and the final push upwards to an ambiguous ending: it's the first time Bush has emphasised music as the primary storytelling device, rather than through lyrics or as a combination of both words and music, and you could even make a point that the lyrics are so dream-like throughout The Ninth Wave that they're secondary to the sounds. Once again she's using a multitude of voices to narrate the story and often lets others eclipse her completely, with her brother Jon Carder's narration on "Jig of Life" specifically acting as the intense climax of the entire cycle. This is Bush scoring an imaginary art film, trying to paint such vivid images through the sounds that no visuals are required. h
The key point is, it's pointless to tackle The Ninth Wave through its individual setpieces. You could perhaps pull "A Dream of Sheep", "Hello Earth" and "Morning Fog" out of their context with relative ease, but even the first and last there are arguable given how much of their identity and strength lies in being the respective start and finish to the song cycle: the desolate prettiness of the former and the big bursting bliss of the latter (somewhat tying into the first half the album) do work on their own but they're short and off-structured, only making perfect sense when in tandem what's adjacent. Taking "Under the Ice" and "Waking the Witch" outside their intended context is even more impossible because they are score pieces, and while "Jig of Life" packs a wallop with its bewitched folk rhythm and stands out as the key highlight of the second half in many ways, it's still integrally fitted to the lore of what came before, serving as the dramatically intense climax moment for it. The space-age ballad "Hello Earth" is the only real breakout star - to the extent it feels almost out of place - and through its echoing atmosphere and harmonic textures it stands bold, beautiful and hair-raisingly aching as Bush's voice practically floats in the middle of all that space, pointing the direction she would take forward on The Sensual World. That leaves us with the gentle yet skeletal melancholy of "Watching You Without Me", which appropriately falls somewhere in the middle: more fleshed out as its own entity than most of the record, yet it's the key emotional punch of the cycle as the narrator imagines her family going about their daily life without knowing she's in danger.
Suffice to say, it's two very different halves of what is ostensibly meant to be one album - and that's what I've always found slightly awkward with Hounds of Love. Both halves are genuinely great - the first half is the best run of songs Bush has committed to tape yet in her career and The Ninth Wave's ambition and presence are undeniable. Placed together though, they're two vividly different creations and I'm not certain they really play together as nicely as perhaps intended as flipside demonstrations of her range. If anything, both scream to be extended into their own entities: the direct retrospective comparison point here is obviously Aerial a couple of decades later, which has a similar pop/art split but with both expanded into a full album length, which gives the project more of an impact. Because the two halves of Hounds of Love are so different too, chances are I'm rarely on the same wavelength for both at the same time, which leads to mixed results as a listening experience.
And yet, that seems like an unfair complaint (and one perhaps highlighted by my choice of medium, I guess the vinylheads have the right idea with this one with the enforced side flip) because it feels like I'm slinging mud on something that doesn't deserve it when considered from a purely musical standpoint. If the aim was for Bush to prove a point with Hounds of Love, she absolutely hit it with flying colours: both sides are masterfully executed in writing, production and arrangement. But the two sides do make for awkward bedfellows, and for some people that might be fine and not even worth raising as an objection. For me, it's the one thing preventing this from being as frequently listened as a whole body of work than her other albums, with one side being grand anthems meant to be played at full volume and the other a strange journey you're best to go into with a good set of headphones and focus. It doesn't make Hounds of Love any less impressive as a set of music and thanks to its range it's still one of her best albums to act as an introduction to her ethos, it just means as an album it (to some degree intentionally) it doesn't come together.
The copy I have comes with a handful of bonus tracks that gather together strays from the sessions. The two remixes are superfluous: typical for 1980s remixes they're extended reworks that expand on the musical passages of the originals without actually adding anything of real value. "Be Kind to My Mistakes" and "Burning Bridge" carry on the sound of the album (and particularly the first half) but in both cases lack the grandeur, making them enjoyable enough outtakes but obvious discards. The piano-only arrangement of "Under the Ivy" and the a cappella "My Lagan Love" strip away all of the album's layered production and are perhaps the most impactful of the bonus tracks for that alone. None of these are truly essential and The Other Sides collects them together anyway for those who do want to hear them.
Physically: My copy is a 1997 remastering/reissue; not a fancy anniversary one, but rather the kind of slightly expanded standard-price version that became popular in the late 1990s for many classic artists whose prior CD issues had been relatively skeletal in nature. So while the actual appearance is just your standard jewel case and small booklet, the booklet itself does have an introductionary preamble (from Peter Fitzgerald Morris, a co-editor of one of the long-running Kate Bush fanzines) that goes through the context and accolades of the period, and the lyrics are interspersed with a multitude of promo shots.
THE SENSUAL WORLD
|Release year:||Rating:||Key tracks:|
|1989||8||"The Sensual World", "Deeper Understanding", "Rocket's Tail"|
1) The Sensual World; 2) Love and Anger; 3) The Fog; 4) Reaching Out; 5) Heads We're Dancing; 6) Deeper Understanding; 7) Between a Man and a Woman; 8) Never Be Mine; 9) Rocket's Tail; 10) This Woman's Work; Bonus track: 11) Walk Straight Down the Middle
Soft and intimate, personal but perhaps a little muted.
After the double whammy of the unfiltered weirdness of The Dreaming and the lofty ambitions of Hounds of Love, The Sensual World marks a cosy return to planet Earth. The Sensual World is often the one album of Bush's that slips through the cracks with nary a mention, caught between the critical and cultural gravitas of its predecessors and the divisively different The Red Shoes, where its relatively ordinary nature seems to almost not warrant a mention for an artist who's often so bombastic. And granted, out of Bush's albums it's perhaps the one that least feels like a statement of intent: the production and the arrangements are for the most part relatively grounded and adjacent to turn-of-90s AOR, Bush's vocals have a consistent hushed tone rather than jumping around from voice to voice, and as the title implies the album's themes are primarily around love and relationships (save a few detours around dancing with Hitler, eerily prescient look on internet addiction and a tribute to a lost pet cat). It's one of the few albums of hers which continues on the same path it starts with throughout the record, consistently but also predictably. And predictable is something we normally don't associate with Kate Bush.
It's a shame though if that's where the take ends, because hidden within The Sensual World are some truly rich details and often very lovely arrangements. The album might feel relatively "unadventurous" compared to Bush's prior works because she's playing with an intentionally smaller sonical palette this time around, but those select few items are used throughout for a more cohesive approach and that lends the album a real signature sound. Most notably you have the regular appearance of the Bulgarian folk singing group Trio Bulgarka, whose voices have been enlisted to bring additional colour and texture when Bush herself is exercising restraint in her vocals this time around. While they only appear in three songs ("Deeper Understanding", "Never Be Mine", "Rocket's Tail"), their ethereally beautiful presence is so powerful that they're practically synonymous with the album and one of the first things to come to mind when thinking about the album. From an instrumental perspective, a number of traditional Irish folk instruments form a regular part of the album's sound world and contrast against the synthesizer padding, merging with Bush's strain of songwriting naturally. The lush and smoothly flowing bass parts are the secret weapon that bind the album together, often allowed to frolic while the rest of the instruments take a knowing step back. It may not be as showy about it as its predecessors but The Sensual World is filled to brim with subtly striking melodies and impressive detail - even if you sometimes have to dig to hear it from under the production.
The production, which makes the album so cohesive, is the elephant in the room when speaking about the album. The Sensual World coats itself in a hazy and pillowy mood: partly as a result of the ongoing background synth textures doing a lot of invisible support work, but the other part is the peak-1989 pop/rock production elements with all the edges smoothened off to form a gently caressing and highly processed sound. If I didn't know better I'd think Bush let someone else produce this for her, because it's so in sync with the wider music world that it's nearly devoid of her own personality altogether. It's hard to tell how much of a benefit or hindrance it is: some songs befit the atmospheric quirks of the sound world, but for others it's too muted, particularly when things are meant to go loud but they're kept a little too dynamically close to everything else and some of the impact is lost. "Heads We're Dancing" - the aforementioned ditty about an unrealised brush with Führer himself - demonstrates the conflict well because it's the closest the album has to the last couple of records in its extroverted, onward-thrusting art pop rhythm: the production lends it an off-kilter, dream-like aura that does work with the tone of the song even though you can hear in the song's core that it's yearning to go wilder. There are also songs where the production undeniably puts a damper on the proceedings, strikingly "Rocket's Tail". It takes its time setting the scene with a near a cappella arrangement so that when the drums do strike and the guitars begin to wail at the strategic turning point, it's meant to bring to mind a rocket blasting off - and when it does, it doesn't quite hit as much as you think it should. It's nonetheless a thrilling song and one of my favourites on the entire album - it's the big emotional pay-off after all the subtle touches before it, with Bush's and Trio Bulgarka's voices coming close to breaking into maniacal laughter in the end - but its finale is a home backyard fireworks display, not the grand New Years show it aims to be. "Love and Anger" also suffers the same to a smaller extent, concluding with another guitar-revving rock band finale but the production pulls it back from revelling too much. It's like there was a decibel limit and the production tries to keep things hush-hush so they're not fined for going over it.
The plus side is that, as hinted above, the tone chosen for The Sensual World does work for the gentler material, and that's most of the album. The Sensual World is an apt title not just because of the overall more lovestuck and lovelorn lyrical themes, but because the songs themselves by and far sound more close and intimate in the way we think about sensuality. You do get your moments of raptuous release when it's called for - the vast choruses of "Reaching Out", the fireworks of "Rocket's Tail" - yet it's an effect used with care rather than with typically Bush-esque abundance. Even the big single contenders, where Bush normally would go all-out extravagant, sound like they've intentionally been toned down a notch or two: the stand-out title track "The Sensual World" soars regally and contains one of Bush's best choruses in all its simplicity (the effortless majesty of the Uileann pipes at work) but never quite takes off in the manner her prior big in-your-face singles did, leaving its anthemic tones hiding under a more (appropriately) sensual charms. The haunting and spacious "Deeper Understanding", the depth of "The Fog", the ache of "Never Be Mine" all have a real richness to them as the production downright envelops around them. "Deeper Understanding" in particular has become somewhat of a keystone for this record for more reasons than just the retrospective recognition given for its topic (the extent of its virtual escapism may have sounded like fantasy in 1989 but you'd call the song a cliché if it was released now): you can practically imagine the production for the rest of the album spreading from this one song, and the way the sound caresses the longing and the quiet melancholy of its stand-out melodies is truly superb. It's a space-age ballad that sounds precisely like it floats in literal space, its notes and rhythms travelling seemingly for miles and highlighting the beautiful vastness around the music. And even as Bush bares everything down to the very minimum on "This Woman's Work" with only a piano, harmonies and a few highlighting glimmers, the production emphasises the vulnerability present in what is one of Bush's iconic piano-emphasising tracks. It's these moments where you can see what Bush was going for with the record.
That emotional sensitivity is the key to the album. Bush isn't - for once - out to reinvent herself or march towards lofty goals with The Sensual World. The 1980s had been a whirlwind decade for her and she had capped her success off with a greatest hits record, and so The Sensual World has the weightless feel of Bush simply wanting to write some songs with no points to prove anymore. At the time of release the angle was that this was a more personal record for Bush and there is some truth to that: it sounds more reflective, has some autobiographical tones across it and having become known for her vocal acrobatics, Bush herself sounds like she's solely singing from her heart for much of the record. It has a more intimate resonance in ways her previous albums haven't, as close to a quietly private set of songs as she has recorded. While it has some obvious flaws to how it actually filters that into reality, there's never an issue with her songwriting, delivery or melodies on the album: that's all still top notch and the visible issues in some of the production choices aren't enough to harm them too deeply. The final album is excellent enough that, though not one of her best, it has been a curious personal favourite of mine since I first heard it. It's often just as arresting in its richness as many of her more obviously big moments, but it doesn't gloat about it.
As a final addendum, ,y copy of the album comes with the bonus track "Walk Straight Down the Middle" which was included on all the original CD copies. Bush's actual intention has always been for "This Woman's Work" to be the final song of the album; now, it could be because I'm just used to how my copy works, but I actually think "Walk Straight Down the Middle" works better in that role. It leads on from the palate-cleansing nakedness of "This Woman's Work" towards one last atmospheric jaunt, with its slowburn groove and the suddenly glimmering chorus giving the album a more tonally appropriate final word - and just as a song it's very good and on par with most things on the main tracklist. I've retained it at the end of the album even in my digital library and it's become my canonical closer, adding to the album's strengths.
Physically: Relatively basic jewel case and lyrics sheet affair. As a nice bonus "Walk Straight Down the Middle" is included in the lyrics section as well, further integrating it to the rest of the album.
THE RED SHOES
|Release year:||Rating:||Key tracks:|
|1993||7||"Moments of Pleasure", "Lily", "Constellation of the Heart"|
1) Rubberband Girl; 2) And So Is Love; 3) Eat the Music; 4) Moments of Pleasure; 5) The Song of Solomon; 6) Lily; 7) The Red Shoes; 8) Top of the City; 9) Constellation of the Heart; 10) Big Stripey Lie; 11) Why Should I Love You?; 12) You're the One
You know, I'd be all for a bright and direct album from her but it turns out to be a mixed bag.
Bush never intended to quit touring altogether, it just never became a priority for her to pursue. Her 1979 tour had concluded early with the tragic accidental death of her lightning technician Bill Duffield, after which she was put off from the idea for years; by the time she could have entertained the idea of bringing her music to live audiences again, it had become so rooted in the magic of the studio that touring it didn't seem appropriate or even interesting. By the early 1990s she had started to come around to the idea again and The Red Shoes began its life as a songwriting exercise for music that would suit the stage setting, retaining her signature sound but streamlining the arrangements and focusing on punchier, more upbeat songs that would suit the nightly performances. The touring plans were eventually cancelled but the album remained, and hence why The Red Shoes has such a peculiarly different feeling to anything else Bush has released.
While there are your usual bells and whistles (or rather, horns and strings this time around), Bush's music hasn't had this much of a band sound since her earliest records. It's less dense, often punchier and it gets straight to the point with its melodies, with little time spent on atmosphere or texture this time around: the extended instrumental passages this time around are relegated to long outros perfect for the crowd to insert their singing voices to in a concert. This alone already sets The Red Shoes apart from her other material, but it's not the sound per se that's the real reason why a reputation exists around the album (and which Bush agrees with), it's how it sounds. Much like on The Sensual World Bush is stuck in a contemporary rut here in terms of the production, but the more streamlined approach accentuates it even further. All your favourite processed rock sounds from early 1990s MOR are here, squeezed dry from anything organic, and they have nowhere to hide now like they could in The Sensual World's moody layers. The Red Shoes sounds not only awkwardly dated in the kind of way that you can't really even coat over with nostalgia, but it's also estranged from her usual touch and for the first time she sounds like she's following other people's footsteps rather than taking her own. The production is genuinely a big part of The Red Shoes and not in a particularly positive or likely even intentional way. Bush gets lost in her own songs: it's her one album that sounds not just co-produced but co-written with someone else, aimed at a perceived audience rather than herself.
That said, get past the plastic twang and The Red Shoes can be a lot of fun. If Bush intended to take the album on tour, it's clear she wanted everyone to have a great time: this is quite easily her most genuinely upbeat album and it breaks through the production. If you're up for Bush embracing her inner stadium pop queen, there's a lot of fine material here: above all the infectious hook-after-hook hootenanny of the lead single and opener "Rubberband Girl", the Prince-guided "Why Should I Love You?" which honestly does just sound like a Prince party jam and the deliriously giddy "Constellation of the Heart" where Bush then decides to write her own Prince song and covers it head to toe with giddy call-and-answer vocals (including a dialogue with the makeshift choir in lieu of a standard bridge). Even "Eat the Music", this album's "Shiny Happy People" in its divisiveness, wins you over with its aggressively relentless cheer by the time it gets to its minute-and-half outro carnival. The slower and calmer tidebreakers in-between, reminiscent of The Sensual World, have a smoothness and suaveness that radiates a kind of free-spirited sense of having a little merriment. When she's shouting in the center of the explosive choruses of "Top of the City" she really does sound like she's having a riot at the edge of the world, and when she coyly purrs "I don't want your bullshit / just want your sexuality" in "The Song of Solomon" there's a clear wink in her voice. The sound is what it is but Bush herself still sounds wholly engaged and committed, perhaps even enjoying the chance to indulge in her most pop-friendly fancies for a change.
The other thing is that there are those somewhat moodier pieces scattered throughout The Red Shoes and against all odds it's where the album often shines the most, despite not being its advertised trick. As already hinted earlier, The Sensual World and The Red Shoes are linked in many ways despite being years apart that they're practically sibling albums (similar production aesthetics, common conceptual links, the appearance of Trio Bulgarka, etc), and there's a fair bit of carryforward from the last time around. The moments where Bush still has her other foot in the misty realms of The Sensual World still have that album's signature atmospheric coating, which as a big fan of The Sensual World obviously strikes a chord. The more obvious setbacks of the album's chosen production are also toned down by the more intricate touch: you can find real beauty in the smooth and delicate grace of "And So Is Love" and the aforementioned "The Song of Solomon". In "Lily" the playfulness at the core of the album meets the denser aesthetics and the concoction is spellbindingly good, at the same time full of both rousing swagger and more back-and-forth vocals as well as mystical majesty, served just in the way Bush delivers so well. "Moments of Pleasure" is the most stripped down song across the entire record - though its Hollywoodian piano and strings can hardly be called "intimate" - and it's also the very best, with Bush's reminiscing of her fallen friends and the bittersweet memories of the good times spent with them having such a tangible ache that it stops the world for a moment; it's her best piano ballad, period, and the finale where she pays tribute to her friends by name is a quintessential moment in her career.
Read between the lines of the past paragraphs and you might detect what ultimately does the biggest disservice to The Red Shoes, in that it has no focus. It's a party album full of snappy, hook-heavy pop songs, except when it's directly going back to its predecessor's tricks - and then there's a heartwrenching piano ballad literally right after five minutes of overwrought fruit metaphors in a parade float dressing. Somehow Bush even finds the time to shove in "Big Stripey Lie", a strange, moody and almost wholly synthesized swerve with an entirely different set of collaborators than the rest of the album, which is even more of a curveball than the previous curveballs were. "You're the One"? A syrupy ballad that sounds too seductive to be the heartbreak ballad it is lyrically, and too shy to be the late night slow jam it wants to be musically. The final album sounds like it was cobbled together from a bunch of false starts, and for its individual great moments - which there are many - only rarely does it feel like a genuinely essential piece of work and like it has something more to say than just offering 12 more songs into her discography. The songwriting in its core is still really solid to the point that I really wish it had the chance to genuinely shine, but thanks to being such a mixed bag The Red Shoes more often than not lacks the kind of finesse you'd expect from Bush. It's an album as easy to criticise as it is to love individual parts of is; the strength of the former is shown in how my rating still veers to the positive, but you do understand why after this album she began her long hiatus.
Physically: Black-spined jewel case, with the booklet folding out into a full poster with lyrics on one side and photo of Bush with one of her dancers on the other.
|Release year:||Rating:||Key tracks:|
|2005||10||"King of the Mountain", "Sunset", "Nocturn"|
CD1 (A Sea of Honey): 1) King of the Mountain; 2) π; 3) Bertie; 4) Mrs. Bartolozzi; 5) How to Be Invisible; 6) Joanni; 7) A Coral Room
CD2 (A Sky of Honey): 1) Prelude; 2) Prologue; 3) An Architect's Dream; 4) The Painter's Link; 5) Sunset; 6) Aerial Tal; 7) Somewhere in Between; 8) Nocturn; 9) Aerial
It took 12 years but it was worth it for something this majestic and rich.
There's an infamous 12-year radio silence between The Red Shoes and Aerial, which Bush didn't intend to be that long. Originally she wanted to take only a year or two off after spending her life since the late 1970s moving from one album campaign to another, starting the next project in the background as soon as she had finished the last. Simple as, she needed a break. Then life happened: she started a relationship and then that became a family, and she half-inadvertently removed herself from the public eye while focusing on raising her son. What would eventually become Aerial was always there in the background, slowly coming together little by little but the priority was always on her focus on the formative years of her son. When the album did finally come out, it was simply just the right time for it.
Aerial may have had a long gestation - some parts of the album were recorded all the way in the mid-90s - but you wouldn't be able to tell. On a close listen there are a few giveaways, like how the pseudo-reggae riff of "King of the Mountain" seems to stem from the same train of thought that lead to Bush's turn-of-90s cover of "Rocket Man" and how "Joanni" has traces of the slightly synthetic, processed sound that many of her peers in the the 1990 like Peter Gabriel had on their big budget productions. That's only if you're really trying to keep your ear out for telltale signs though: otherwise, what primarily comes across from how the album sounds is how rich and pastoral Aerial is. Bush admitted later on that she felt the last two albums prior to this had a stifling production, and what she wanted to do with Aerial was to let the music breathe. That it does - it's a phenomenal sounding record. Its expansive sound (simply in terms of sheer space) and arrangements easily draw parallels to the great skies and the free open air that the album takes inspiration from, but perhaps more accurate is to say that it has a tightly enveloping presence: through speakers it fills the room, through headphones its details get free reign to fully wrap around the listener's consciousness. How Aerial approaches its production really allows those intricate yet strong-willed arrangements that Bush has become known for come to life. It sounds the most relaxed out of any of the albums she has released since she started self-producing, beaming with the ease of someone who no longer has anything to prove and who can wield her experience and arsenal like magic as she pleases.
Besides the schedule gap, the other talking point with Aerial is how Bush revisits the idea she had with Hounds of Love by splitting the album into two halves, only this time each half gets its own disc rather than a side of one. A Sea of Honey is a set of seven completely unrelated songs, while A Sky of Honey is a conceptual cycle connected together into one unified experience (some copies of the album even merge all nine songs together into a singular, inseparable chunk of music). The two halves are more joint together this time around in comparison to the more radical split of Hounds of Love: the first disc isn't exactly made out of big pop songs nor is the second disc as narratively full-on as The Ninth Wave was, with only a few brief interlude links in-between a more song-based approach. The production and the general arrangements are also the same, and so in reality the two halves don't represent the kind of a flipside twist that Bush's first go at this kind of thing was, but rather they're two complementing sides which use the same colour palette to paint different pictures. It's the titular sea and sky: opposite elements reflecting one another.
While none of the songs on A Sea of Honey are connected, they do share the same vague theme of being centered around specific individuals. Some, like Elvis ("King of the Mountain") and Jeanne D'Arc ("Joanni"), are historical; others are fictional, such as the mathematician smitten with numbers on "π" and the lonely (and widowed?) "Mrs. Bartolozzi" lost in her daydreams and memories during an ordinary laundry day. "Bertie" and "A Coral Room" highlight the importance of Bush's family during her hiatus years, the songs dedicated respectively to her son who'd join her life between the albums and her mother who had passed away during the same period. Which just leaves us with the cryptic "How to Be Invisible", the one song Bush has never elaborated on - but with this being her comeback album after the music presses had started to come up with increasingly wild stories of her becoming a societal hermit, it's hard not to see this as a song about Kate herself, and addressing her decision to withdraw from the public eye but told through the same level of mythology that people had imposed on her.
The same depth of production runs through all the seven songs but stylistically they are about as varied as their subject material, as you might expect from a self-advertised set of unconnected songs. "King of the Mountain" marries its aforementioned light reggae tilt into a strikingly groovy and alluringly atmospheric art-rock dressing that grows and grows until its gentle gust turns into a tornado, whipping into an extended crescendo finale full of soloing guitars, smooth bass and drum fills and classic Bush backing vocal sets. Most of the first disc makes a conscious decision to limit itself to Kate's voice alone but here the multitude of voices, both hers and others, contributes to the song's colossal outro most powerfully. It isn't just the opener of the album, it was also the lead single as well as my actual introduction to Kate Bush properly; it made such a deep impression from the get-go that I went and sought out the single because I needed to hear it again, and its power hasn't dimmed in the slightest since. That subtle groove makes another appearance in "How to Be Invisible" which is the most conventional Bush anthem of the set with its shuffling rhythm and quiet growth, and the borderline-electronic "Joanni" which adds a synthetic edge to its deep near-funk, not too far from where The Red Shoes left Bush. The psychedelic, topsy-turvy swivelling of "π" is appropriately delirious for a song where the chorus consists of counting the pi digits to about a hundred decimals or so, and the layers of keyboards that dance around that central tilt and swirl are as bewildering as they are charming. "Mrs. Bartolozzi" and "A Coral Room" feature for the most parts solely Kate and her piano (there's a brief guest vocal moment in the latter, that's about it) and besides being so stripped down in arrangement alone, she's also taken a more minimalistic approach to her playing and composition, frequently breaking into a cappella sections or letting the notes in her melodies take distinct breaks before continuing. That starkness makes these the most heartbreaking and nakedly vulnerable as she's ever been: "A Coral Room" is obviously charged with emotion as she moves from the abstract secrets of a sunken city beneath the sea to an anecdotal memory of her mother now gone, but the loneliness and longing in "Mrs. Bartolozzi" is just as palpable and breaks through the inherent absurdity of hearing her repeat the words "washing machine" or "sloshy sloshy". Throughout the album in general, there's a number of these surreal madcap moments interjecting what are otherwise "regular" songs - Bush fully taking advantage of the fact that she can find refuge in audacity and get away with it thanks to her "kooky" persona and experimentation over the years. And fair play to her, she can throw them in without breaking the power of the songs, leaving the listener with the impression they're listening to a mad scientist at work.
The biggest feat of strength here though? "Bertie", which isn't the best song by any means on disc 1 but which - I swear by my heart - pulls off the near-impossible task of an artist writing a song about their child and it actually working as a piece of art, even when its chorus(?) consists of her repeating "lovely, lovely, lovely, lovely Bertie" in what is her single most awkwardly direct moment of expression. But the actual song is a little thing of wonder that catches you unawares and wins you over without realising. Bush throws away the instrumentation used throughout the rest of the two discs on the wayside and arranges her song of dedication for renaissance instruments alone, and it's done with the knowledge and expertise of someone who grew up with old folk music and probably had all those instruments lying around the family home in the first place. It's like the logical conclusion of her introducing more and more old and traditional folk instruments to her music through the decades (often played by her brother, Paddy), and having a song built entirely around them was all but inevitable. Now that it's here, it's genuinely a really lovely piece of music - enough to cut through the cheese only a parent can truly love for the rest of us, more jaded folk.
A Sky of Honey doesn't hop around stylistically as much as the first CD, and the emphasis during its 40-minute journey from dawn to midnight is in mapping the everchanging atmosphere into the form of music. A Sky of Honey is about the full experience and while it can be thoroughly enjoyed in individual segments, it is at its best when it's let to segue between its moods as intended, where its runtime moves from the gentle wake-up of "Prologue" to the sweeping "Nocturn" stretching its wings across the moonswept sea and finally the title track breaking down into a hysterical bout of joy at the end of the cycle. There's no clear story this time around, but rather an overarching idea of the day running its course and Bush channeling the changes in the time of day into different tones and musical moods to reflect the natural drama, visiting only a few key players during the ride - the everpresent birds, the Sun as played by Bertie and a Painter caught by the rain (originally, and in my copy, voiced by Rolf Harris but following the revelations around him in later editions he's been replaced by a grown-up Bertie, which gives the cycle a neat meta-twist). The story is in the music itself and the scenes it sets: there is a genuine sense of discovery with each cut, Bush taking you by hand and leading you to sights unseen as you both fly through the sky on the wings of the songs.
The chosen production and sound for Aerial complements this beautifully and the nature of A Sky of Honey allows it to properly stretch its wings. Besides the couple of short interludes (one of them, "Aerial Tal", is worth mentioning just because hearing Bush duet with birdsong is a delight), the songs are all extended compositions where the lines between verses, choruses and musical sections all blur together. They patiently move from their oft-serene starting points into cinematic centrepieces one after another, in a multitude of ways: the dramatic crashing of drums towards the end of "Prologue" which really kicks the day into motion after the piano-lead first half and the quiet "Prelude" before that, the slowly unfolding "Nocturn" where the finale is a full bloom of everything that came before, the twist ending of "Sunset" which turns the song's suave groove upside down as it becomes a fervorous celebration guided by a striking acoustic guitar and a choir of voices. The arrangements are even more vivid that on the first disc as the lengthy musical passages allow different counter-melodies, textural shifts and instrumental sections weave and flow through the songs, the warmth and intricacy of the production giving each element a focal role - it's honestly simply wonderful. The gentle morning breeze of "An Architect's Dream" and the arcane slow jam "Somewhere in Between", the closest to a representation of A Sea of Honey on CD2, are slightly less indulgent in length (only around five minutes each) but they build bridges between the more drastic shifts in mood between the pastoral morning and the vivid afternoon and then later the dramatic dusk. The title track is no longer bound by the time of day and rather soars right into the sun, bringing the theme of the song cycle to a close and bidding it farewell by catapulting it right up into the air, its ecstatic rock guitars and Bush's unhinged cackling acting as the celebratory fireworks that conclude the journey with an explosion you never saw coming.
It's masterful, both halves are. That's really the right word as well: Bush appears from her self-imposed exile like a wise grand master who has spent the years in secret honing her skills, and now sweeps the floor with the swift yet graceful moves of a sage in tune with the universe. The effort and attention that has gone into Aerial is so obviously staggering, but she makes it sound like it's second nature to her and like she does it with the click of her fingers. Bush is one of the most influential artists of her generation - possibly ever (I mean we have her to thank for hands-free microphones!) and though she's already had several classics before this, Aerial is the stamp to make her reputation official. All the experimentation and evolution lead her the space she created this album in and it's obvious in every single song. And while the first disc is perhaps more obvious in its classic cuts given each song is meant to stand fully on its own, it doesn't mean that the songwriting itself is any weaker on A Sky of Honey: there's some truly stunningly great melodic work and writing across it all, and "Sunset" and "Nocturn" in particular are as incredible as career highlights as the likes of "Running Up that Hill".
The perfect score I've given the album underlines and highlights the impact it has had in my own journey and development with music. I've already mentioned how "King of the Mountain" was not only obsession at first sight but also my first proper touch with Bush's music; Aerial's late year release subsequently lead to it being among the top items in my Christmas 2005 wishlist and started my own journey into her discography. My initial listens of the album took place in my dimmed bedroom over the seasonal holidays - a perfect environment to let the imagination fly as you lie down and immerse into the music, huddled up in the warmth of your private quarters in the peak of winter. It was magical, majestic even; my preferred environment to listen to Aerial is still in a room with as little artificial light as possible, to recreate that immersion. It's an album I can call genuinely picturesque because of how vividly it creates these mental images in my imagination through vague associations with the lyrics and the sound itself, which are now forever running through my head each time I listen to the album. I'm still just as awestruck by Aerial as I've ever been, and probably more so because the more music I listen to, the more it highlights the special and unique aura that Aerial has.
Simply one of the best albums of all time. Talk about a comeback.
Physically: A thick gatefold packaging, with the two CDs nested in little slits across the expanding centrefold. Lots of varied artwork across the liner art and booklet, from classical paintings to bird photography; and a screenshot of a piece of audio software to hammer in the point that the "islands" on the cover are in fact a waveform representation of birdsong. It's a little sad that my copy is definitely starting to show its age, with a little wear and tear on the hinges (bulky cardboard isn't the sturdiest and I'm glad it's held this well through as many house moves as it has gone through), and most tragically the spine's vivid orange-yellow has faded into a pale yellow thanks to the Sunlight Incident of 2019 which wrecked some havoc across my collection before I realised - it genuinely stings in the case of this album!
|Release year:||Rating:||Key tracks:|
|2011||6||"Deeper Understanding", "This Woman's Work", "Moments of Pleasure"|
1) Flower of the Mountain; 2) Song of Solomon; 3) Lily; 4) Deeper Understanding; 5) The Red Shoes; 6) This Woman's Work; 7) Moments of Pleasure; 8) Never Be Mine; 9) Top of the City; 10) And So Is Love; 11) Rubberband Girl
Good intentions but ultimately flawed results with a back catalogue revisit.
The Sensual World and The Red Shoes are widely considered to be the dip years in Bush's back catalogue, and though I may disagree with that notion Bush herself thinks in line with the general consensus. The issue she specifically has with those two albums isn't to do with their songs but rather how they sound. The production choices made cast such an obvious shadow across the two records, and my reviews for them also made a big deal about it while otherwise defending the strengths those albums had: they're synonymous with how Bush often sounded lost in the trends of the day instead of casting her usual signature aesthetic across the music.
So I get it why she wanted to revisit those albums in particular. After Aerial's comeback/resurrection Bush retreated from the public eye again but didn't intend to disappear this time around, and in the interim years she set up her own label (Fish People) and reissued her back catalogue under it. Director's Cut was a direct result of that retrospective archive digging, which had cast new salt on old wounds when it came to those two albums. She still believed in the songs and wanted to do things right for them, and the idea was to give a new coat of paint for the cuts which Bush saw most suitable to be reintroduced into her legacy, to canonise a handful of songs that listeners may have previously overlooked. As much of the original recording stems were kept as possible rather than record everything anew, but some ideas were changed per her current preferences, new vocals were recorded to match her current range and, most importantly, the production was tweaked. With Director's Cut Bush intended to fix the past and to reclaim back a section of her career that most had ignored.
Director's Cut is somewhere between a remix and a re-recording, and that's a little more confusing than it sounds. Half the album sees Bush reinvent - sometimes drastically - her old songs, giving them shapes so different that they may as well be new songs; but the other half is incredibly faithful to the old recordings and barely touched the original performances beyond a little production tweak. Back-to-back that turns out to be rather jarring because next to those brand new reimaginations (which most fans would be more excited by) the lightly remixed songs resemble filler content, tucked to occupy the gaps between the more interesting unearthings: after all, if you wanted to hear the songs as they were, you'd just listen to the original albums even taking into account the change in the mix (and we'll get to that). I'm not sure whether it's intentional or coincidental that those more extreme reworks are for some of the more acclaimed songs off the two albums while the ones sticking close to the original recordings represent underdiscussed deep cuts and forgotten singles; so perhaps the point here is that Bush felt those deep cuts didn't need a facelift but rather deserved a recontextualisation to break them away from the no-mans-land they'd been cast in. But then the question goes, why these songs? "Song of Solomon", "Lily", "The Red Shoes", "Never Be Mine", "Top of the City", "And So Is Love" - all songs ranging from good to great, but for most parts they're slow songs reliant on atmosphere and subtlety. Nearly every song with even a hint of a spring in their step on those original albums has been left out and what she's chosen here is a marathon of low-to-mid tempo mood pieces that paints a strangely one-dimensional picture of two very different albums. Even the songs you'd expect to be exceptions to the rule ("Flower of the Mountain" AKA "The Sensual World", "The Red Shoes", "Rubberband Girl") have also been slowed down to match. The result is a strangely flat listening experience, one note and tone throughout.
Most bewilderingly of all, it turns out that Bush has traded one set of awkward production choices with another. Director's Cut means well by softening the plastic rigidity of the original turn-of-the-90s production by making everything more spatial and atmospheric while trying to give the songs a more expressive dynamic range that they were lacking in the first time around, but everything ends up souding too soft and timid. The most audible issue is (ironically) that everything is too quiet, each song reduced to a whisper and not in a way which would sound intentional or be a benefit to them. Rather, the mixing feels off with drums that lightly caress the rhythm, nearly non-existent bass and most noticeably Kate's voice which often disappears into the background: the new version of "Rubberband Girl", which we'll get around to properly later, is the most egregious example where Kate's presence is practically an afterthought and nearly inaudible. The fixes that Director's Cut offers are close to hypercorrection: the general concept of giving a sparser, airier and more organic feel for these songs has a good intention but it's taken too far and they're now too naked and empty. The thing is, for the most part I love the songs Kate has picked for this album and the choices feature some of my favourites off their respective albums, and yet I struggle to engage with them or pay attention to them in this new context because for most parts they quietly linger in the background. "Lily" in particular was a real highlight of The Red Shoes but none of its energy is present in the version here: no matter how wild Kate goes in her last chorus ad-libs, it just doesn't stick when everything else sounds like a mountain of pillows has been set in front of the speakers.
With all that said, Director's Cut boasts an absolutely incredible middle section, where Bush goes at her old songs with more radical brush work and in one fell swoop revitalises, reimagines and reconfigures a handful of songs that were already discography highlights to begin with and now even more so. "Deeper Understanding" now features a chorus sung by Kate's son Albert (Bertie for us Aerial-heads) through a vocal manipulation software, making the duet between the computer and its addicted user not just explicit but also somewhat unnerving in its uncanniness and all the more haunting; there's also a two-minute tail-end jam which marks the first and only time on the album where the drums truly come to life, as the song's gentler digital-era ambience (in contrast to the deep atmospheric swoons of the original) breaks apart into a jazzy free-form frenzy full of vocal stutters. "Moments of Pleasure" cuts off the string orchestra from the original and replaces the chorus with choral humming, stripping the song into the bare minimum and making what was already one of Bush's most heartbreaking songs into something even more beautifully bittersweet and aching. Narrowing the focus solely to Kate emphasises the deeply personal nature of the song and with the drama of the original arrangement cast aside, it sounds even more vulnerable and resonant than before. "This Woman's Work" - which was already just Kate and her piano to begin with - retains the stripped down approach but replaces the piano arrangement with crystalline keyboards and faintly harmonising vocal textures, while doubling the length of the song by extending the space between everything rather than adding anything new. It's the most radical rework on the album simply because of how impactful the changes turn out to be: the song has become an ethereal lullaby and its already present wistfulness now sounds all the more solitary in the world, underlining the longing the narrator experiences. This is the definitive version of the song as far as I'm concerned, an emotional bomb that casually just gets dropped in the middle of the album when you've already gotten used to the idea that maybe you're not going to witness something that truly opens a new insight into the song: until this does.
There are two other more distinguishable reworks as well which book-end the album but they're not quite as successful as the heart of the record. "The Sensual World" has now been retitled into "Flower of the Mountain", with Bush finally getting the right to use a passage from James Joyce's Ulysses as the lyrics like she originally wanted to but couldn't. The original song is one of my pet favourites in Bush's catalogue but the general minimalisation and softening of this version makes it stumble particularly hard, with those same wonderful melodies now no longer lifting off the ground: the formerly majestic chorus now wanders around, lost and in search of something to pick it up. "Rubberband Girl" has been fully re-recorded from scratch and gone is the extremely early 90s, jangly pop feel that characterised the song. Now it bears a strange country rock arrangement that comes out of nowhere after ten songs of muted or atmospheric ballads and slow jams, like a sudden cheeky curveball thrown to surprise the listener and bring a little levity to the album. In theory I appreciate twist and it's great that Bush gives at least some kind of a nod towards the more upbeat parts of The Red Shoes, but the execution lets this one down too. It's already been mentioned but Kate's voice is drowned in the mix so badly it's actually a little irritating and the aims of the Director's Cut production changes are really at odds with the direct rock and roll energy this take tries to go for, and so everything is just too muffled for the ideas to work. Throughout the album Bush has also been editing her lyrics slightly and omitting certain portions altogether, but the removal of the final set of countdowns on "Rubberband Girl" is the only one that leaves a big empty hole behind it: it was the most fun part of one of her perkiest songs, and the song just isn't the same without it.
It's just a weird mixed bag of an album. The premise is fine, interesting even, and especially after Aerial and its all-time-great production the idea of Kate modernising the sound of these two albums is a really enticing prospect: so it's quite frankly shocking just how flat and empty Director's Cut sounds. The writing is still mostly great just like it was originally and so in their core these are still a set of really good songs, but the remixes largely do a disservice to them. Turns out, I actually prefer the original production, dated as it is - at least it brought some kick to the songs. The more heavily rejigged songs make you wish Bush had done a similar sweep across the board, because at least then it'd justify listening to this over the original albums just so you could hear the reinventions. As it is, as fantastic as that middle section is, how the songs surrounding have been presented here make me doubt if I actually like the originals as much as I do (a quick revisit to the old albums proves my memory is correct). I can't give this too low of a score because, once again, the songs are good even if the execution here brings them down and enough has been left intact of them that it's not a lost cause. It's just funny to me how the aim here was to revist albums notorious for their production, only for me to cry out for a better production once more. This could have been a really interesting addition into her discography but it is actually a little superfluous.
Physically: A bound book-like case (digibook), with the lyrics booklet glued onto the cover. Features a small introduction from Kate that vaguely sets the scene, and an interesting set of very theatrical photos for nearly every song.
50 WORDS FOR SNOW
|Release year:||Rating:||Key tracks:|
|2011||8||"Misty", "Wild Man", "50 Words for Snow"|
1) Snowflake; 2) Lake Tahoe; 3) Misty; 4) Wild Man; 5) Snowed in at Wheeler Street; 6) 50 Words for Snow; 7) Among Angels
Like wandering through a gentle snowfall, with the big pop songs lost in the blizzard.
Bush didn't break her silence in 2011 just to re-record some old songs. Less than half a year after Director's Cut she announced and released 50 Words for Snow, just as the winter winds started to settle in. In the press release she described the album as being "set against a background of falling snow" and while strictly speaking this is not a "seasonal" release in the sense e.g. a Christmas album would be, it is a set of songs that claim direct inspiration from the most storybook-esque wintery depths your imagination can conjure. Whether you want to consider it a gimmick album is up in the air - it does feel wrong to listen to this at other time of the year than its designated one, admittedly - but it's definitely more than just a conceptual curio. This is only the second album of brand new material for Bush since the new millennium started, and it has enough meat around its thematic bones to bear the weight of those expectations and to be a fully-fledged addition to her catalogue.
There is her stylistic growth for one, despite this technically being her fifth decade of operation. The second half of Aerial and the brand new arrangements on Director's Cut already hinted at the shifts in how Bush had started to approach songwriting following her initial post-90s hiatus return, and with that having had the chance to brew a bit longer again 50 Words for Snow becomes the first full-length demonstration of the new direction. The songs are once again long ("Among Angels" clocks at 7 minutes as the shortest song on the album, "Misty" is 13 and a half minutes as its longest) and they are rarely composed with clear structures in mind. Their wandering arrangements (with a hint of jazz, even) begin with core melody or an idea, which is then let loose to meander in any direction it fancies - or simply circle the same spot for a few minutes if Bush wants it to. The arrangements grow and shrink around the base to form a narrative to match the lyrics, each song becoming a miniature soundtrack that tracks the scene changes of a film with one long, continuous shot. If you stumble upon something you can identify as a chorus within the blizzard, it won't be the melodic centrepiece of the song akin to Bush's earlier works but rather they serve the role of briefly releasing the suspended tension that the rest of the song builds and teases: short, explosive moments where the arrangements shake and stir awake from their trance, before the tracks resume their dream-like stream of consciousness. It's all still recognisably from the hands of Kate Bush but the overall approach resembles that of a live band improvising and developing the song around her, for as long as she is in the mood for it.
The other noteworthy aspect running through the album is its use of guest vocalists: while accompanying voices have been a recurring element in Bush's music since the start, here their roles are emphasised so that you could call this her duets album and it would feel appropriate. Five out of the seven songs feature someone next to Kate, and she doesn't even greet the listener as the album begins: the first voice you hear on "Snowflake" is her son Albert, whose pitch perfect adolescent choir falsetto is the centrepiece of the entire song (Bush even admits the song was written solely to take advantage of his range at the time). "Snowflake" isn't the only song to place Bush as the hook singer rather than the lead, as the actor icon Stephen Fry plays the pivotal narrator role on the title track. Meanwhile "Snowed in at Wheeler Street" is a full-fledged duet with Elton John where the two singers trade verses in constant dialogue, and both "Lake Tahoe" and "Wild Man" have a more traditional use of backing vocalists to accompany Kate's voice but the voices chosen are intentionally distinctive and contrasting with hers, emphasising the difference. Together with the more instrumentally oriented arrangements there's a shift in moving Bush herself out of the spotlight, her becoming more akin to a ringleader or a conductor directing the wintertime fairy tale from the side of the stage; the concept of the songs being more important than her taking the starring role, this time around.
With all that in mind 50 Words for Snow makes for a strange but captivating listen, and if you're someone like me who has an admitted weak spot for this kind of winter magic that goes for double. The primary goal here is to invoke a very specific kind of atmosphere and Bush executes it perfectly, with the album turning into an extended retreat into an enchanted winter landscape that's as mysterious as it is welcoming. Much of the album's strength lies in how powerfully evocative it can be and the key takeaway from the songs is almost always the feeling of it all, and it's often really rather beautiful and wonderful. The opening trio in particular relishes in seizing the listener within the gentle blizzard of their delicately flowing arrangements: "Snowflake" gently falls down in a repeated loop that never seems to get tiring thanks to how lovely its winter cabin cosiness comes across, the ghost story "Lake Tahoe" floats gently across eleven minutes as it adds a little bit of an appropriately ethereal touch on top of its glacial glisten, and "Misty" slowly builds its drama as Bush's more... romantic take on the trope of a snowman coming to life takes its impassioned twists and tragic turns. They're all about the mood they weave - and it is very enchanting - but that isn't to say they're not captivating in writing: in line with Bush's growing interest in focusing on the gaps in-between instruments as much as the music itself, the melodies take long and spatious journeys through the arrangements but they are captivating in their stretched-out flutters.
The second half of the album finds Bush building a firmer structure around the song ideas and it's a welcome change of pace, as by this point you've had about 35 minutes of hazy winter tales and it's a good time to introduce a little more movement underneath it lest the album would become too one-note. "Wild Man" is the album's clear attempt at a token single thanks to holding the biggest, most independently standing chorus out of everything here - and it's excellent, I might say - and even that big stand-out moment is wrapped in a duvet of mystical mood and placed between a scene-setting, instrumentally expansive soundtrack; much like a search for the titular yeti the song quietly tracks its chorus through a gentle, hazy backdrop before it suddenly appears in its otherwordly expansiveness. The striking backing vocals from Andy Fairweather Low play such a key role once again, almost stealing the attention from Bush's whispery voice. "50 Words for Snow" is the most "extroverted" composition thanks to its tight band arrangement that storms ahead with more groove than the rest of the album combined, building a strong setting to back up Stephen Fry listing the titular fifty words one by one (some choice excerpts: "swans-a-melting", "vanilla swarm", "bad for trains") while Bush encourages him on. This is where the album is at its loosest and most fun, and despite essentially just being a set of verses and choruses on repeat, the quietly growing volume of the band beneath the two voices has the effect of building up its gentle raucousness over and over, the countdown becoming as exciting for the listener as it is for Bush and Fry. The rev-up is almost thrilling after so much of the album has been so soft in its caress, and as the penultimate big bang it leads comfortably into the minimal closer "Among Angels" where it's just Kate and piano, her voice softly hanging onto the sparse wintery echoes of the piano.
It's a shame then that the album's winter spell breaks for the duration of "Snowed in at Wheeler Street". The song itself is the weakest of the lot to start with (the "chorus" for one is basically just loud cymbal crashing and barely feels like a worthwhile pace breaker), but honestly I struggle more with Elton here than I do with the music. His post-1980s vocals are my kryptonite in how histrionic they are, his over-the-top Broadway belting falling in the way of the song itself. It's one of the album's key vocal parts as he duets with Bush on a story of two eternal soulmates passing each other time and time again throughout history, but every time his voice appears it takes me out the mood the song is trying to build: he's overselling the drama and it hits my ears awkwardly. The combination of both leaves the album stalling for nearly ten minutes in place and so "Snowed in at Wheeler Street" is the one track here that begins to meander and overstay its welcome, and with these song lengths and the limited amount of songs (though still running for over an hour in total) it has a more negative impact than if we were talking about a single 4-5 minute valley in a typical 10+-song album.
That one song aside - or if you have built a better tolerance for dear old Elton than I have - 50 Words for Snow is an impressive addition to Bush's relatively small collection of marvels. This is about the furthest she's ever been from her more accessible side musically, eschewing out-of-this-world pop songs in favour of building worlds through musical imagery, tone and soundscape. The seasonal direction aside, as a collection of music this represents another stage of Bush's artistic evolution and acts as a milestone in that path, solidifying the changes in her writing process as she takes a full leap into yet another style and sound. As of writing this, 50 Words for Snow remains her last album of brand new material to date but it most certainly doesn't sound like something that should be final, but rather the proper start of the next chapter and it would be thoroughly exciting to see where she takes these concepts from here. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't ignore the concept either, especially if you're a sucker for mistral marvels: I have a huge soft spot for this album not only for the songs and for Bush's performance, but because it captures that idyllic winter mood so strongly. It's great as it is but play this when the snow is falling and everything clicks into place - she nailed the mission statement she set out to complete, and I'd commend it on that alone.
Physically: Another digibook with the lyrics in a booklet bound to the covers of the packaging, each song accompanied by a different snow carving in line with the cover (that one's also used for "Misty", actually).
BEFORE THE DAWN
|Release year:||Rating:||Key tracks:|
|2016||9||"King of the Mountain", "Sunset", "Cloudbusting" - no links, thanks YT for failing me!|
CD1 (Act I): 1) Lily; 2) Hounds of Love; 3) Joanni; 4) Top of the City; 5) Never Be Mine; 6) Running Up that Hill (A Deal with God); 7) King of the Mountain
CD2 (Act II): 1) Astronomer's Call (Spoken Monologue); 2) And Dream of Sheep; 3) Under Ice; 4) Waking the Witch; 5) Watching Them Without Her (Dialogue); 6) Watching You Without Me; 7) Little Light; 8) Jig of Life; 9) Hello Earth; 10) The Morning Fog
CD3 (Act III): 1) Prelude; 2) Prologue; 3) An Architect's Dream; 4) The Painter's Link; 5) Sunset; 6) Aerial Tal; 7) Somewhere in Between; 8) Tawny Moon; 9) Nocturn; 10) Aerial; 11) Among Angels; 12) Cloudbusting
She finally takes to stage again and it's a show beyond imagination. But thankfully we have the music to imagine it with.
Bush broke her 35-year absence from live concerts in 2014 with a 22-night residency in London. As expected for Bush, who back in 1970s didn't want to do your normal shut-up-and-play-the-hits concert either, the show wasn't a straightforward gig as much as it was a full theatrical experience: an elaborate three-act set that included full runthroughs of the song cycles from the second halves of Hounds of Love and Aerial, narratively expanded and re-arranged with detailed stage shows and props to bring visuals to the formerly music-only stories. The tickets were sold out immediately, the audience and press were banned from taking photos or videos and no live film has been released to date (though the entire show was filmed, sans audience, so there is hope - and I can see some sneaky shakycam footage has hit Youtube). Thus, the majority of us have only the extensive photo collage in the album booklet and various verbal descriptions to go by to help us imagine how the night looked like. Undoubtedly the visuals formed a grand part of the residency's magic, but if you want immediate firsthand proof of the quality of the concert itself, it's how Before the Dawn paints such a strong image with music alone that you never long for what's not there.
But before the grand theatre curtains open, Bush and her band have a warm-up. Act I is a short run-through of some popular favourites together with Bush's own back catalogue selection, with the very obvious and intentional omission of everything before the mid-1980s. The Hounds of Love singles get the greatest applauses and it certainly is exciting to hear Bush and her band (which doesn't feature any of her usual session musicians familiar from the albums, but there's some heavyweight professional talent behind her nonetheless) give the title track of the album and the evergreen "Running Up that Hill" the show-stopping centerpiece treatment that they deserve. It's kind of weird to imagine that these are the first times these songs have been played properly live, and hearing them ring out to an overwhelmed audience is a moment of reclamation for these songs, hearing them take their deserved place on the live concert throne they belong to after years of exile. Elsewhere, Bush's re-canonisation of her oft-forgotten middle years through Director's Cut continues by allowing "Lily" to re-introduce her to the live world with triumphant explosiveness, and if by now the song hasn't become one of her essentials it's officially crowned as such from hereon in, kicking the doors down as the introduction to the show. The middle section dedicated to deep cuts gives the show a brief semblance of being just a "regular" live concert as if Bush had been doing this touring thing regularly and we're just hearing the latest live set of hers: Aerial's "Joanni" and the dynamic "Top of the City" are both natural fits to the live environment, played with perfect and seasoned expertise. "Never Be Mine" was never played in the actual shows and has been brought in here from one of the audience-less recording sessions, and represents the only relative dip of the first third - it's a great song and it's certainly played well live, but its muted subtlety isn't in the right company when everything else around it is waving around triumphantly; it makes sense why it was dropped from the actual performances as it's the only song without a real role in the flow of the setlist. The first set is deservedly finished by "King of the Mountain", one of her finest songs which sounds spellbindingly phenomenal here. The outro gets extended into a grand finale and towards the end the band begin to summon an actual gust of wind around Kate, with the winds rising and rising until they drown out the sound altogether and set the scene for Act II.
Act II moves onto The Ninth Wave, the second half of Hounds of Love. The presentation here has been expanded beyond the sequence's original form, restricted by the vinyl side length limits as it was. There's more dialogue to give the original story of a lost sailor at sea some more tangible form, particular sections have been extended for dramatic purposes and there's a new (brief) reprise of "And Dream of Sheep" halfway through to tie things together neatly. This is the section of the night that seems to have had the most involved visual side with pre-filmed interlude segments, detailed stage sets changing from song to song and even a replica helicopter coming down from the ceiling to save the day, and so perhaps expectedly it's where this live album most audibly cries out for an accompanying DVD. But, that's primarily due out of pure curiosity on just how those incredible sets captured in still form in the booklet would come to life in fron of your eyes: the music and the performances are impressively evocative regardless. The version of The Ninth Wave presented here is honestly a simple and pure upgrade compared to the original, which was already great to begin with, thanks to how much more intensely the story comes to life through the new arrangements and the strength of the band. Take "Waking the Witch" for example, which on the album was an interesting sound experiment that gave the sequence some cryptic tension but isn't necessarily a musical stand-out on its own: here, it towers with frightening boldness which hammers down the fear and the horror of the segment (big kudos to Jo Servi's incredible performance) and it's one of the key moments across all three discs. Throughout the sequence the sadness, the wistfulness, the fear and the thrill of the narrative are so vividly channelled that when the "The Morning Fog" finally calms down the storm and lets the sun pierce through the dark clouds, it's honestly comforting: not only is there sincere love and warmth in Bush's voice and her gratitude whenever the audience erupts around her, but the interpolation of the backing vocals from "Cloudbusting" towards the end are such an inspired move that I wish the original studio version pulled off the same trick. My relationship with The Ninth Wave has always been complex and though I do love it now I still don't feel quite as strongly about it as so many others do, as they praise it as one of Bush's greatest achievements: the version played here, though, finally lets me in on that secret I've always missed.
(If there is a downside to Act II - and I feel strangely mean saying this - it's Bush's son Albert who forms part of the backing vocal chorus and gets an acting role during one of the interludes. Don't get me wrong, he does a wonderful job as part of the choir so no nepotism accusations here - but he has the acting chops of a theatre kid with way too much unmerited confidence about his own talent. His part in the "Watching Them Without Her" interlude gives me the kind of second hand embarrassement that I get when I watch bad amateur film productions and in particular the way he delivers the line about charcoal detox (which is a bad punchline to begin with) makes my skin crawl. Sorry, Bertie)
So far so great, for most parts, but it's act III which trips this from a great live record to an essential one. I'm already positively predisposed towards the idea of playing the entirety of A Sky of Honey, the second half of Aerial, from start to finish but how that sequence is brought to life here is a work of art. The beautiful soundscape of the already soaring compositions now streches even further across the horizon, their colours run brighter and they exhale warmth and light. The point of the song sequence is to depict the passing of the day and the slightly tweaked arrangements and the interplay and chemistry between the band and the choir (and Kate) make it sound like the most magical event in nature. The grandest heights rise even taller and the arching swoons that it takes now flare up with life-affirming marvel: the jubilant finale to "Sunset" now lasts several minutes longer and is the most beautifully frolicking burst of pure excitement she's ever cast into existence and makes me smile like a loon each time, and the double closing act of "Nocturn" and "Aerial" sound like they could burst through the roof any minute as Bush and her band keep pushing the music further and further. It's a tour-de-force statement to the strength of both the original set of songs and the crew Bush has gathered around her - a masterpiece sequence that crowns the entire evening and leaves me pathetically superlative. Even "Tawny Moon", the brand new song inserted into the sequence which stars solely Albert in lead vocals (presumably to give Kate a small breathers), works better than you'd expect. Despite its shaky start thanks to Albert's community theatre vocals and the general awkwardness of the song forcing itself into the established flow (with the added weight of being a brand new piece of original Kate material in her self-caused drought of such), by its end - when Albert's narrator summons the moon to present to the audience - it's reached the kind of regal flair that matches the rest of the sequence and honestly paves the way to the conclusion quite well.
Once A Sky of Honey has quieted down, the third disc also contains the eventual conclusion of the evening itself. After a moment of solemnity with "Among Angels" that effectively gives the audience a chane to catch their breath, Bush finally breaks out "Cloudbusting". It's as triumphant as it should be: a beloved fan favourite finally gets the chance to be the concert closer it had been "robbed" the opportunity of for several decades, and it's the perfect cherry on top of the entire event. It's grand, communal and genuinely epic. The rapture of applause and cheers that follows it is well deserved: the audience know they've witnessed something historical given the context of the residency and as they let Bush know it as well, she sounds like she's genuinely fighting back tears of happiness as she repeatedly thanks her fans. It's genuinely emotional even for the distant listener: you can tell this was a special night for everyone involved and against all odds its special nature successfully replicates even in the home environment for someone who never saw the original show. Anecdotes ahoy but ny first listen through this entire three-disc set was past midnight with headphones on, because after I'd given the first disc a quick test run I couldn't stop wanting to hear all of it no matter how late it was starting to get; after the last cheers had faded out and the third CD had stopped, even I felt like I'd been able to partake personally in this special evening. It was unexpectedly touching.
It's a wonderful thing, this album. The context aside, Before the Dawn would be a stand-out release in any discography: the setlist is the kind of thing where artistic ambition meets pure fan service and with only a few minor faults across the entire two and a half hour adventure, it's a truly thrilling run of songs, made even more exciting by the perfection of the performance all-around. This would slot in among my favourite live albums on that alone, but you can't simply ignore that surrounding context, hard as you might try - the uniqueness of the occasion is apparent both thanks to the artist and the execution, and it makes this a touch iconic. Who knows if we'll ever hear another performance from Bush, who much prefers the quiet life these days, and for all we know part of the strength of this release lies in how Bush answered the call of the live stage after several decades, proved beyond anyone's belief that she could do it and then vanished back into her world: this needed to be something special because of the sheer weight of expectations alone. And it is special, and among her back catalogue essentials.
Physically: A nicely thick hybrid digibook/digipak design, with the booklet separate from the packaging this time; as mentioned in the review, the booklet is full of photos and short descriptions by Kate about the evening's stage show. A great accompaniment.
THE OTHER SIDES
|Release year:||Rating:||Key tracks:|
|2019||7||"Experiment IV", "December Will Be Magic Again", "Rocket Man"|
CD1 (12" Mixes): Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God) (12" Mix); 2) The Big Sky (Meterological Mix); 3) Cloudbusting (The Orgonon Mix); 4) Hounds of Love (Alternative Mix); 5) Experiment IV (Extended Mix)
CD2 (The Other Side I): 1) Walk Straight Down the Middle; 2) You Want Alchemy; 3) Be Kind to My Mistakes; 4) Lyra; 5) Under the Ivy; 6) Experiment IV; 7) Ne T'Enfuis Pas; 8) Un Baiser D'Enfant; 9) Burning Bridge; 10) Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God) (2012 Remix)
CD3 (The Other Side II): 1) Home for Christmas; 2) One Last Look Around the House Before We Go; 3) I'm Still Waiting; 4) Warm and Soothing; 4) Show a Little Devotion; 6) Passing Through Air; 7) Humming; 8) Ran Tan Waltz; 9) December Will Be Magic Again; 10) Wuthering Heights (New Vocal Remix)
CD4 (In Others' Words): 1) Rocket Man; 2) Sexual Healing; 3) Mná na hÉireann; 4) My Lagan Love; 5) The Man I Love; 6) Brazil (Sam Lowry's First Dream); 7) The Handsome Cabin Boy; 8) Lord of the Reedy River; 9) Candle in the Wind
A sweep through (nearly) everything that hasn't been included on the above albums, with a few key moments among the obvious outtakes
Bush spent a lot of time in the 2010s going through her own back catalogue with the Director's Cut re-recordings, the career-crowning live album and a couple of different reissue campaigns, to name the main events. The Other Sides came to fruition as part of one of those re-release cycles and after a point it was eventually released as a stand-alone feature for the fans who didn't want to drop the cash for the expensive vinyl box sets. It's the logical conclusion to the archive binge, bringing together the majority of the songs Bush had released outside her albums as either b-sides, standalone singles or various compilation cuts. Which is a godsend of an idea, given the length of her career and the various formats and hard-to-find exclusives that the material here originally featured in.
The thing is, ever since her album gestation periods started to get longer (right about the same time that single-exclusive b-sides started to be a thing) Bush had started to exercise a particularly tight quality control over what she would include in her albums - which were never particularly long records in the first place, so if something was dropped out of the tracklist it wasn't due to time restrictions. It's not too surprising then that amongst the bonus tracks and random curios collected in the titular middle two discs there isn't too much in the way of hidden treasures like you'd expect to find in compilations such as these. The most obvious standouts - and the most important songs to get acquainted with here - are the ones that were given the more prominent releases to begin with: the post-Hounds of Love arthouse synth banger "Experiment IV" and the fairytale Christmas essential "December Will Be Magic Again" were singles to begin with, the slow jam "Walk Straight Down the Middle" was part of the original standard CD tracklist for The Sensual World and the ethereal "Lyra" was commissioned as the end credits song for the 2007 filmation of The Golden Compass. The best thing that The Other Sides does is to make these more easily available because all of them are to some degree important songs or at the very least great songs which add their own flair to her discography. There's also alternative mixes of of "Running Up That Hill" and "Wuthering Heights" and they're really more just tweaks than anything else, so nothing extra really needs to be said about them beyond what you'd make of the originals - "Running Up That Hill" tweaks the intro and outro slightly, "Wuthering Heights" is a new vocal recorded in the late 80s, neither feel any more or less essential than the originals.
Mind you, it's not like there isn't something worth digging for in the rest of the material scattered across the two primary discs. You can typically tell why any of these songs didn't make the cut for their respective albums: many of them feel a little underdeveloped or unfinished, either through short lengths and abrupt endings or repetitive arrangements. "Under the Ivy" and "One Last Look Around the House Before We Go" are prime examples here, with both being beautiful piano pieces but which are over awfully fast and beg for further elaboration: the latter is an instrumental originally written as part of the incidental score for a TV show and at only one minute long it disappears so quickly it may as well not be there, lovely as it is. For the most part Bush has also saved her more interesting ideas for the studio albums, so there's little of the inventiveness in the cast-offs - though there are at the very least some interesting ideas running here and there, most prominently in the rock ballad "You Want Alchemy" which is one of the clearest examples of the Prince inspiration behind The Red Shoes and is a neat alternate character interpretation for Bush, and probably would have lit a bigger fire if it had been channelled through a more conventional diva presence (though Bush's guttural shrieking towards the end could only really work with her). The big bait for fans to bite onto is "Humming", a previously unreleased song from 1975 (i.e. dating before The Kick inside) but it's more interesting from an archival perspective than as a song: she sounds like any other mid-70s singer/songwriter and it's telling it didn't make the cut for her debut even way back when.
Unexpectedly, it's the cover songs disc turns out to be the most interesting part of this little mini-box. Kate's choices of songs to cover aren't particularly conventional (lots of traditional Irish folk songs, Donovan and George Gershwin and, uh, "Sexual Healing") and she often treats them as genre exercises or ways to try different hats: you can find her playing the role of the jazz standards singer ("The Man I Love"), the old-school Hollywood starlet ("Brazil"), the traditional Irish balladeer ("Mná ha hÉireann", coated in fantasy strings) or going all a cappella ("My Lagan Love"). It's a strange journey but equally captivating and the songs mesh together with unconventional chemistry; even the version of "Sexual Healing", which sounds absurd in theory but Bush draws a lot more attention to the verses (did you realise that this is a song about escaping depression and anxiety through love? It's sexual healing, after all), and with the gentle dream-pop-meets-folk-instruments arrangement even the famous chorus is full of warmth and reassurance. The disc is bookended by two Elton John covers, of which "Candle in the Wind" represents the most conventional extreme of the disc's spectrum as Bush treats the song very faithfully to the original, with just a little bit of her own production touch. Her take on "Rocket Man", though, brings me so much joy and might just be my favourite thing on this entire collection. Turn-of-the-90s AOR production, cod reggae and uileann pipes is a wild combination that only Bush could pull off and she does it with such reassured flair in her performance: it's a heartfelt take on the song but played with a big grin and it's full of playful twists and turns in its arrangement, one of those being the genuinely lovely instrumental coda which ties it together with the rest of the disc through its extensive use of more folk music oriented instrumentation. I've heard a lot of "Rocket Man" covers and this is my favourite of all of them, and sometimes I prefer this to the original.
To round off the set there's a disc of remixes and extended versions of the Hounds of Love hits, and it's something you'll likely listen to once and then shelf until it comes the time to do something like review the album they're on. The original songs are great and the mixes have some neat ideas like how the remix of "Running Up That Hill" is the debut of the intro arrangement that's now canonical for the song with all later re-interpretations including the 2012 remix and the alternative version of "Hounds of Love" has a slightly different energy to it. But, all in all, it's really hard to get excited over them unless 1980s-style extended mixes are a particular soft spot for you.
Thus in summary, there's not much in the way of genuine revelations here but given this scoops up some random miscellanea that's good for any fan to have ("Rocket Man", "Experiment IV", "December Will Be Magic Again", etc) and otherwise acts as a nice little archive material dump for the completionists, it's hard to give it any genuine complaints - it serves its purpose and as a b-sides maniac I'm by default just happy it exists. Outside the music there is this general air of being a half-hearted rush release in wake of the vinyl box sets around it, which lets it down a little in that sense. The minimal presentation is disappointing after Bush's previous albums under her own label had established a tradition of more interesting liner notes, and each disc only runs for around 30 minutes or less which feel a little thin given this isn't actually a fully comprehensive collection (a handful of b-sides missing, to begin with) - even the remix disc would've felt a little less superfluous if it had also featured any of the remixes released after the 1980s, as in its current state the first disc is basically just a companion piece for The Hounds of Love. So prior to going in this will likely need a bit of an expectation adjustment even for the most devoted Bush follower because she's by no means an all-time great b-sides artist; but warts and all, it's a set of decent to very good songs and for a fan it's the best way to round off the collection.
Physically: Another digibook box but as mentioned, very lithe in liner notes this time around with barely even any credits included. It's like we're back in the budget release days, just with a fancier case.
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