Songs of Innocence and Experience: Kate Bush’s ‘Aerial’
This review, of her first album in over a decade, appeared in The Word’s issue of January 2006. I hope it conveys my high regard for one of the greatest English songwriters.
Doing nothing comes so easily to many of us. Even when we can’tdo nothing we dream of a day when we can. Yet when famous people do nothing we are shocked. That’s odd, because they’re often the only people who can afford to do nothing. John Lennon took five years off near the end of his life and was universally presumed to have gone mad. Until Aerial Kate Bush had not released an album for 12 years. Of course, like Lennon, she wasn’t really doing nothing. She was leading an average busy existence, including the production of a child.
But our view of celebrities is completely upside down. If they record an album, shoot a movie or make a TV series – all quite exceptional things to do, when you think about it – we accept it as natural. Yet if they walk down the road to post a letter there is pandemonium. Our best-selling magazines will scramble to bring us the amazing photographic evidence. The radio silence maintained by Kate Bush these last 12 years has looked like further evidence of eccentricity. Just about everyone in Britain likes her, but she has never quite escaped the comic lampoons the satirists did of her when Wuthering Heights came out – when she writhed, witchy and wild-eyed, for the video.
So it’s a pleasure to report that Aerialis not only the best album of Kate’s career, it’s also the sanest piece of work that you will hear this year. After immersing yourself in its two CDs you emerge with a sense that every other record around is slightly off-centre and every other act is suffering from some neurosis. Aerialalone sounds wholesome and psychologically sorted. Admittedly, it’s the work of a soul in wonder – she’s smitten with wonder at her child, the songs of birds and the colour of sunsets. But then, if you weren’t struck to your core by the strange beauty of those things, you’d be the mad one, wouldn’t you?
In spite of its length and its decade of gestation, nothing of Aerialsounds overwrought or conceptualised to excess. You might call it an ambitious record, except its heart appears so calm. We might say it’s her masterpiece – and people already are – except that again, the word looks wrong. ‘Masterpiece’ seems full of clanging, masculine strife, whereas Aerialis the most feminine of records, bathed in maternal contentment. It’s unassuming and domestic – you will hear a whole song hymning the mop, bucket and washing machine – and it summons that evening peace which, when we can achieve it, makes a home the only truly important place on earth.
Every Bush album since her debut, 1978’s The Kick Inside, has been adventurous, some successfully, some less so. (She recorded those songs in Oxford Street between 1975 and 1977, just a few blocks down from the 100 Club where The Sex Pistols were simultaneously inventing punk rock.) Aerialis no less adventurous, yet there is something innocent about her fearless ways. It’s as if she hatches these extraordinary songs (Think of Wow,Running Up That Hill, or a dozen others) with no inkling that they’re unusual. The only other writer I know with that holy disregard for self-censorship is Van Morrison. For neither Van nor Kate is any train of thought not worth at least an off-peak return.
Mrs. Bartolozzi, the song that ends with a reverent incantation to a washing machine, is one example. Another would be the keyboard-challenging πabout a man spellbound by the mathematical formula for Pi. Intuitively she shares his fascination with the inscrutable magic of numbers. You’ll recall John Lennon’s obsession with the Number 9, but Kate goes way beyond such single-digit simplicities; her ravishingly sensual recitation runs to several dozen decimal places. Elsewhere, in How To Be Invisible, is an occult formula for the would-be inconspicuous (‘a pinch of keyhole… hem of anorak, stem of wallflower, hair of doormat’). Joanniis a rapturous meditation on St Joan of Arc. And A Coral Roomemploys a plangent piano line, no more than that, to evoke the soul of Bush’s departed mother in a vision of something lost beneath the water. It’s sublime. And it deserves the title of art because it carries something that’s both unique and universal.
Universal or not, though, we’re all rooted in some place and Kate Bush is pop music’s most English composer. From the madrigal of love to her young son, Bertie, to the gorgeous, pastoral song cycle on CD2, she’s a daughter of Kent, the former garden of England. She has often woven in the most exotic elements – the Bulgarian women’s voices, the Irish instruments of her mother’s heritage, the enduring cultural totem that is Rolf Harris’s didgeridoo – but Aerialis always, finally, in the Saxon meadows of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending(’til lost on his aerial rings,’ went George Meredith’s poem, ‘in light’). At the same time she has accurately been called the Princess of Suburbia, but as we’re all dimly aware, the essence of every suburban street is really reached Through The Looking Glass, turn left at Narnia.
It took Bush a couple of albums to ‘find her voice’, as they say of novelists. What’s really remarkable is how much of substance she has to say with that voice. Whether it’s your rock gods of the 1960s, or Kate’s contemporaries in the new wave generation, how many of them make their greatest music 30 years into a career? Famously groomed by Dave Gilmour and EMI as a teenage prodigy, Bush was recording albums before she had actually known any life outside of a convent school. Much of the early work is so self-consciously spooky you’re put in mind of whispered stories in the dorm by torchlight. But given the passing of years she’s drawn upon the experience of real life, with its births, love affairs and bereavements – the ‘hatch, match and dispatch’ of existence – to give the giddy kite of her imagination something to tug against.
Between the contemplative earth-mother and the intoxicated spirit who gets so high on nature that she has to greet the dawn from a rooftop – the girl who exits, giggling, from this record as if rewarding her own hard work with a big old bottle of splosh and something to smoke – Aerial‘s are songs of innocence and experience. The album’s state is summarised in a song called Somewhere In Between: between sleep and wakefulness, day and night, the tick and the tock. It’s a wholly satisfactory place to be. It seems the product of a life that is, at least momentarily, quite in balance. At the outset of CD2, an impressionistic tableau of one unfolding day, blackbirds praise creation, turtle-doves confer, a small boy marvels. And by its end, after the midsummer night’s dream (which reminds me that it was Shakespeare who invented the word ‘aerial’) you ought to be sharing a portion of that wonder. I hear a lot of records I enjoy and admire, but very few that really affect the way that I feel for the rest of the day. This one does, and I cherish it.