Kate Bush’s literate, masterful, enchanting records have won her enormous popularity, even if she can be overbearingly coy and preciously self-indulgent. Over the years, she has become increasingly — if far less frequently — ambitious, turning what might have been a career dominated by others into a fascinating singleminded pursuit of her own muse. From a young piano-playing singer on The Kick Inside, Bush bloomed into a fully autonomous artist and then more or less withdrew.
The Kick Inside is dominated by Bush’s startling falsetto and such imaginative songs as “Them Heavy People,” “Wuthering Heights” and “Kite.” Top-notch sessionmen and Andrew Powell’s sparkling production provide a rich setting for the songs. The record’s huge popularity didn’t seem to faze Bush, who returned before the end of the same year with another well-crafted album, Lionheart. Subtler, more jazz-inflected arrangements keep it less immediate, but the cinema-minded “Hammer Horror” and theater-minded “Wow,” as well as the fondly nationalistic “Oh England My Lionheart,” make it memorable. Bush next issued Live on Stage, a 7-inch EP of concert renditions of four songs from those two albums.
Demonstrating new-found studio expertise, she arranged and co-produced Never for Ever, scoring three British hits (“Breathing,” “Babooshka” and “Army Dreamers”) and further proving her compositional range and depth. Songs about dead rock stars (“Blow Away”), a murder (“The Wedding List”) and a tribute to the “Violin” are among her strange lyrical concerns. A credit line thanking Richard Burgess and John Walters for “bringing in the Fairlight” gains significance in hindsight, given how integral the sampling instrument subsequently became to her music- making.
The Dreaming offers Bush’s first truly rock- oriented work, tinted with strong rhythms and clever Fairlight sounds. Almost free of her little-girl voice and functioning on her own as producer, Bush is revealed her as a highly skilled, controlled singer capable of abundant drama and personality. While the artistic resemblance to Peter Gabriel — in terms of what can be done artfully within the song form — is obvious, it’s all Kate Bush and perhaps her first really extraordinary album.
Hounds of Love is divided into separately titled halves. The Hounds of Love side (on vinyl) contains one of Bush’s most impressive songs, “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God),” plus other similarly complex and enticing creations. The Ninth Wave side offers an overextended contemplation on drowning — impressive, but not really enjoyable. A 1997 reissue as part of the EMI centenary packages the CD in a hard slipcase and adds a half-dozen bonus cuts.
Kate Bush is an American mini-album: one track from the 1979 live EP plus a pair of cuts from The Dreaming and one each from the two preceding LPs. The Whole Story is a fine career compilation (not in chronological order) of a dozen singles, from “Wuthering Heights” (with new vocals) to 1986’s energetic “Experiment IV.”
Four years later, Bush reemerged on a new label with The Sensual World, a major effort that was (incorrectly) expected to become her American commercial breakthrough. Early mentor David Gilmour is back on guitar; other such luminaries as Alan Stivell (Celtic harp), Davey Spillane (uillean pipes), Eberhard Weber (bass) and the otherworldly Bulgarian Trio Bulgarka (backing vocals) also contribute. The title track ushers the listener into a lush, erotic space where Celtic and Middle Eastern sounds mingle with lyrics inspired by Ulysses‘ Molly Bloom. It’s an enchanting welcome, but the album never fulfills its promise. The rest varies from cool delicacy to overwrought byzantine indulgence. Ultimately, The Sensual World is a noble disappointment, never achieving the intended directness, too restrained and enigmatic to reward the listener’s emotional investment.
Aspects of the Sensual World includes an instrumental version of the album’s title track plus three unreleased songs, all of which appear on This Woman’s Work, a luxurious, extensively annotated boxed set: eight CDs or cassettes (nine LPs) that contain the six original albums plus 29 B-sides, 12-inch mixes, video versions and live tracks.
Though she took years between projects, rarely performed live and generally wasn’t around very much, Kate Bush cast a spell over the ’80s. She was far less active and influential in the ’90s. Though professing a love for alternative rock, she hasn’t altered her own sound much: The Red Shoes is another pristine, carefully orchestrated collection notable for its chiming vocal harmonies and crafty use of guest stars. Bush still generates fantastical, image-rich songs – “Lily” celebrates the wisdom of a mystic, while “Top of the City” uses the New York skyline to ponder the meaning of life – but the most interesting aspects of The Red Shoes are due to other people. Eric Clapton contributes wrenching guitar counterpoint to “And So Is Love,” and Prince animates the otherwise canned funk of “Why Should I Love You?”
For a dozen years following The Red Shoes, Bush withdrew entirely from the public eye to concentrate on domestic concerns. In her absence, she continued to impact the course of music, as her spiritual daughters carried on down trails she had blazed. Virtual Bush clones Tori Amos, Paula Cole and Sarah McLachlan had popular success in the ’90s; McLachlan founded the XX-chromosome-dominated Lilith Fair (which might as well have been called the Festival that Kate Built). P.J. Harvey, Ani DiFranco and DJ Rap rewrote the rules of their respective genres, becoming models of independent artists and savvy businesswomen. Still, Bush’s presence was definitely missed, and artists as diverse as the Futureheads and OutKast sang her praises and expressed interest in working with her.
When Bush returned to recording in 2005, she both made up for lost time and remained suspended in it. Aerial is a double-disc opus which, judging from the leisurely recording schedule she’d adopted before taking a break, is probably about as much music as she could create in 12 years anyway. Disappointingly, Bush had left envelope-pushing to the youngsters, showing herself content to continue working in her established style. There’s not a sound on either disc of Aerial that would’ve sounded out of place in 1986. Disc One, A Sea of Honey, consists mostly of placid meditations on home and family, but Bush’s quirky worldview still shines through in unexpected ways. It’s difficult to imagine many other artists penning a love song to a mathematical concept (“π”) or finding an erotic metaphor in doing the laundry (“Mrs. Bartolozzi”) before breaking into childlike sing-song. As she has for most of her career, Bush manages to be simultaneously daft and very moving. A Sea of Honey is uniformly lovely, but its mellow tone is a bit of a letdown, considering its once-adventurous source.
The second disc of Aerial, A Sky of Honey, recalls Side Two of Hounds of Love, a suite of songs loosely centered on a single concept, in this case something to do with either the progress of a single day or birds (or maybe both), with birdsong bridging the gaps between each track. (Bush even joins her feathered friends with some humano-avian chirping). A Sky of Honey begins in the same sedate mode of A Sea of Honey, but as it progresses through “Somewhere in Between” and “Nocturn,” Bush subtly ratchets up the tension of the music until the pulsating close of “Aerial” provides release. It’s a welcome show of strength from a veteran artist, and A Sky of Honey is Bush’s best work since Hounds of Love.