Thursday, November 10, 2005

Better Late Than Never

Kate Bush - Aerial

Twelve years! When Kate Bush last released an album (the criminally underrated 'The Red Shoes' in 1993), we had a Conservative government and Oasis had yet to even release 'Definitely Maybe'. Whole genres have passed by in the interim - Britpop, New Wave of New Grave, the New Acoustic Movement, Drum and Bass, Garage - much to her credit, Bush has existed independently of all trends, be they manufactured or sincere. Her long silence has of itself reaped many benefits. Whilst Kate has focused on motherhood and the domestic life, the extraordinary mystique that surrounds her has grown, enabling her to do the bare minimum of promotion in support of 'Aerial' (one interview to Mojo magazine, two more for BBC Radio) whilst the media publicity machine does most of her work for her. It would have been very easy for many of the female artists who betray her influence (Bjork, Tori Amos) to steal her thunder, but Bush has managed to secure her legacy with consummate ease.

As might be expected, 'Aerial' is wildly ambitious and, in places, quite barmy. It is by no means a masterpiece, but then Bush is too idiosyncratic an artist to produce completely flawless works. It is split into two short discs (around 40 minutes each). The first, subtitled 'A Sea Of Honey' is a collection of seven self contained songs, which are fascinating, peculiar and frequently frustrating. The second disc, subtitled 'A Sky Of Honey' is a conceptual suite, dealing with the passage of the seasons through the course of a single day. Potentially, it's a project riven with pitfalls and could easily have descended into cliche, but Bush just about makes it work (although it perches precariously on the precipice whenever she bafflingly decides to imitate birdsong).

'A Sea Of Honey' is bookended by two remarkable songs. The single 'King Of The Mountain', in which Bush envisages Elvis hidden away in Citizen Kane-style isolation opens the album in a suitably dreamy manner. In a career characterised by the marriages of seemingly opposing musical styles, this is one of Bush's most effective hybrids to date. Its clattering, off-kilter drumming and bizarre reggae chug meld effortlessly with Bush's strangely restrained vocals. It's an entirely charming piece. At the end comes 'The Coral Room', a stripped back piano and vocal ballad that deals obliquely with the death of Bush's mother. A close relation of the heart wrenching 'This Woman's Work' (from 1989's 'The Sensual World'), it is dramatically conceived and exquisitely touching. It provides a powerful reminder of Bush's artistry.

The tracks in between are more problematic. I'm actually rather taken with 'Pi', which finds Kate singing the number to 109 decimal places and marveling over a man infatuated with numbers. It's entirely in keeping with the album's overall theme of awe at the wonder and order of the natural world, and the unique fretless bass sound of Eberhard Weber enhances the texture and sound. 'Mrs. Bartolozzi' appears to be a paen to laundry, with apparently ludicrous lines like 'Washing machine, washing machine/sloosy sloshy, slooshy sloshy/Get that dirty shirty clean'. This being Kate Bush, it's probably about a whole lot more than that, and the lyric about her blouse wrapping around the man's shirt reinvents her old talent for investing the mundane and everyday with erotic imagination. Musically, it is delicate and vulnerable, but suffers from a somewhat hesitant and meandering melody.

'Bertie' is a song for her 'lovely' son. Delivered in a mock-baroque style, it is immensely twee and for every person who is touched by it there will be someone who finds it insufferably nauseating (one wonders what Bertie himself will think about it in a few years' time). With lyrics like 'you bring me so much joy and then you bring me...more joy', it's disappointing that Bush has not found the means to express her obviously genuine emotions more eloquently. 'Joanni' (Joan of Arc) is tough and memorable, with one of the album's more immediate and engaging melodies, but its clunky beats and dated synth string pads do it more harm than good. Much better is 'How To Be Invisible', with its lithe, lightly driving rhythm section and peculiar lyrical incantations. It's the kind of magical realism that only Bush can really pull off. In essence, 'A Sea Of Honey' is never dull, but its experiments are not always successful.

Despite its pretentions, the suite largely fares better. Skip the insipid spoken word intro from Bertie and you arrive at the exquisite 'Prologue' which marks a welcome return for the big drums that worked so well on 'King Of The Mountain'. These produce the album's grandest musical statement when coupled with Michael Kamen's oustanding string arrangement. Kate is in her element here, celebrating the passing of Summer into Autumn with lines like 'it's gonna be so good, we're gonna be dancing'. No doubt someone will describe it as 'pagan', without having any idea what Paganism really is.

Rolf Harris, who first guested on 'The Dreaming' returns here as The Painter, and it's hard to imagine how he resisted the temptation to add the lines 'can you guess what it is yet?'. His jovial, Cartoon Club/Animal Hospital persona doesn't sit very comfortably with the idea of 'A Sky Of Honey' as a grand artistic statement though, and there's something slightly uncomfortable about his appearance, despite its brevity.

'The Architect's Dream' is again exquisitely arranged, although its percussion does sound as if it may have been programmed with the drum pads on a 1980s Yamaha keyboard, but we'll forgive this quirk. Best of all are the closing tracks, which are energised, and full of the highly inventive vocal dexterity for which Bush is rightly lauded. 'Nocturn' is passionate and haunting and with the titles of both discs included in the lyrics, it neatly ties the themes of both discs together, giving the whole bizarre enterprise an appropriately cyclical feel. 'Aerial' is the first piece here that suggests Kate may actually have listened to anything even vaguely contemporary. Its pounding four to the floor bass drum and shouted chorus ('I wanna be up on the roof!') hints intriguingly at club music, most specifically the relentless vocal and rhythmic dynamics of Underworld. Still, with its meticulously realised vocal arrangement, this is still singularly the work of La Bush.

As, if we're honest, is everything else here. It may not be perfect, or even always comfortable, but it's hard to imagine any other artist with this level of courage and conviction. Occasionally her ideas guide her exceptionally well, at others they seem stifling and misguided. It's hard to know what to conclude about such a baffling and confounding record other than at its best, it is the most serious-minded and ambitious pop music of the year and it's certainly good to have her back. It seems unlikely that Kate will perform live again, however, and one serious question remains - is this the start of a new phase of Kate Bush's career, or is it her farewell transmission?

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