ate Bush is a protected and intermittently cherished case, perhaps the last one to have been allowed in the music business. Since the age of twelve, when she allegedly wrote “The Man with the Child in His Eyes,” she has been uniquely nurtured in EMI’s coolhouse, allowed to flourish or brood at her own, variable speed. Influenced in equal parts by Roy Harper and Peter Gabriel (musically) and Gurdjieff and Khalil Gibran (philosophically)—though touring the pubs of Kent in the mid-‘70s as frontwoman of the KT Bush Band, she apparently also knew her Motown and Stax—Bush was the last product of that blue area of adventurous, post-Flower Power era of singer-songwriters open to everybody and everything in terms of influence and expression, and therefore also the last to sneak through that boundary before it was closed forever, the last musician to be allowed to do what she likes, as and when she likes, in this reduced and only partially correctible modern world of short-termism. She knows that she has been exceptionally fortunate, and the carte blanche which such a position has allowed her has granted us one of the most remarkable bodies of music this side of Scott Walker. She was the last one to get away with it.
And to think of what she managed to get away with. It has been said that Kate Bush was to the girls what Dylan was to the boys; somehow she freed something vital, emotionally and aesthetically, which listeners and emulators alike found irresistible to pursue and to adore. How could an album like The Kick Inside, with its unapologetically 1971 cover design, prosper in the middle of the interregnum between punk and post-punk? Perhaps because so many listeners—so many women—who liked the punk ethic but couldn’t abide the beer and fists undertow identified something in Bush’s music and art which could make them think equally: my God, someone is singing to me, FOR me, at last! “Wuthering Heights,” one of the most startling and brilliant of number one singles, with its frantic knocking in the rain on the stalwart oak door in the middle of the “wild, windy moors,” was the first chart-topper to be written and sung by a woman for other women. Even amidst the dying embers of punk, it appeared to have sprung from nowhere (unless as a reproachful Banquo’s ghost from 1967).
Precedents in pop from Petula to Quatro struck poses of assertiveness and independence but men still wrote and produced their songs; likewise there was no Vashti vulnerability in Kate. Cathy wants back in, but strictly on her terms (“They told me I was going to lose the fight”), and in its union of Emily B’s Cathy and Cathy Come Home, the 1966 BBC drama about homelessness, “Wuthering Heights” stands for the final breakthrough by the female musician (even Patti Smith had to break through using a Van Morrison canvas), ready to storm the citadel with courage, charm, and candor.
Who else in 1978 was writing songs about period pains (“Strange Phenomena”), the joys of female self-pleasure (“L’Amour Looks Something Like You”), or suicidal incestuous pregnancy (“The Kick Inside”)—and who else sung such songs with such a stark, sheer voice, seeming to glide and swoop at will, covering three-and-a-half octaves with minimal apparent effort? Even those chord progressions on the piano—their delayed sustain, their unexpected trapdoor modulations, the very fingers which were playing them—couldn’t be ascribed to any realistic precedent; for one very important thing, they sounded so unambiguously feminine.
The Kick Inside probably kicked down more doors than the whole of the first and second waves of punk combined, and she continued with her cheerful disregard of trends and coolness. I cannot think of anyone else who could pull off a song like “Oh England, My Lionheart” (1979) without sounding crass or supremacist. After one unforgettable balletic tour, Bush gave up on live performance, give or take the odd Secret Policeman’s Ball appearance, exhausted by the effort and deeply upset by the death of a stagehand in an accident while preparing her stage set.
In 1980, while a thousand post-punk bands yelled “CND” and “THATCHER/REAGAN/TRIDENT OUT (delete where appropriate),” Bush sang the anti-nuclear protest “Breathing” from the point of view of an unborn baby and, encouraged by Peter Gabriel, started using the then very new Fairlight sampler, the source of the main melody line (and rifle click motif) on “Army Dreamers” and the loving sound of breaking glass on “Babooshka.” Few albums, even by the elevated standards of 1982, were as determinedly experimental as The Dreaming, but for the record she roped in the likes of Rolf Harris, Eberhard Weber, and Percy Edwards’ animal impressions and was laughed out into left field—wrongly so, since the title track in particular is a phosphorescent phantasmagoria of Harris’ “Sun Arise” in negative, depicting Aborigines and kangaroos being smashed into pieces by passing traffic.
Then, in 1985, in the midst of an age of enforced happiness and worthiness in pop—Wham! or Live Aid, Go West or Billy Bragg—she and her band stood stock still in a line on “Top Of The Pops,” Bush singing about making deals with God to change bodies with somebody else in one of the half-dozen or so greatest singles yet made, and devoted an entire album side to a song cycle about drowning, afterlife, and resurrection and watched Hounds of Love, incredibly, sell millions.
The degree of financial security Hounds of Love in particular afforded her—what Stanley Kubrick referred to as “Fuck You” money—has since meant that she is now doubly free to record and release music as and when she feels, all of it now strictly secondary to raising her son; too prestigious for EMI to let go, and in any case an astute business sense has meant that she owns the copyright to her recordings outright. Like Walker, we may have to become accustomed to decade-long gaps between releases. But like Walker, they are usually worth the wait. The Sensual World (1989) contains in its title track the only pop song—stretching the notion of the pop song to extreme elasticity—to have understood and inhabited Joyce and Molly Bloom, and in the climactic “This Woman’s Work,” her most moving song, simultaneously desperate (“Oh, darling, make it go away / Just make it go away now”), rueful (“All the things I should’ve given / But didn’t”), cravenly hopeful (“I know you have a little life in you yet / I know you have a lot of strength yet”), fearful (“Give me these moments back / Give them back to me”), and even scornfully ironic (“Ooh, it’s hard on the man / Now his part is over”)—the child as mother to the woman.
1993’s The Red Shoes took that “hard on the man” element further, since its songs were largely about her break-up with her long-term partner and fellow musician/engineer Del Palmer. The unhelpful phalanx of celebrity cameos does little to disguise what is an extremely muted murmur of a record (and artistically her least successful)—on “Why Should I Love You?” Prince nearly walks away with the album—but “Moments of Pleasure” is its deepest moment; in the lineage of “All the Love” (1982) it is an elegy for a life which can never be recaptured or relived (“Just being alive / It can really hurt”). And yet, all is not lost; the imagery of their “lying on a beach” and “diving off a rock, into another moment,” not to mention the “mountains through the snow” would recur a dozen years later.
And when it did, once again she got away with it. 2005’s Aerial was a triumph, a towering dual masterpiece arriving like a huge galleon into the shallow pool of enforced worthiness and happiness which defined that era’s pop. It sought to give new life to dead souls—whether Elvis or her own mother or even the number Pi—and found that renewed life in young Bertie. Of its two halves, A Sea of Honey is a gruelling but cathartic listen. The decimal points on “Pi” are unending; Bush tearfully adding more and more numbers as though administering oxygen. Meanwhile, the two solo piano and voice pieces, “Mrs. Bartolozzi” and “A Coral Room,” are enough to make one wish momentarily that she had recorded the entire album this way; semi-improvised, grieving for the dead in ways nearly too quiet and personal for public consumption. Who else could make you cry with a five-minute song about a washing machine? And what do we—the listeners—feel is the question with which she leaves us.
Then, on A Sky of Honey, the sun shines again (though rain does intercept and sunset must inevitably come), birdsong and Bertie, Rolf Harris again as Stanley Spencer, a patient progression to the night of evolution before the unworldly genius of “Nocturn” with its Associates sheen, Procol Harum organ, and “Sun Arise” didgeridoo doubling up the bassline as we become the world: “We stand in the Atlantic / We become panoramic.” And eventually Kate too turns into a bird; blossomed, fulfilled, permanent. It is an astonishing work of maximalist pop artistry—and its sales were her lowest since The Dreaming, under-appreciated in a world appearing to prefer snatched slivers of thrashing “cool,” rancid remnants of “attitude,” and a total distaste for anything or anyone refusing, however politely, to be in the face of anything or anyone else. Yet Bush’s stance, though unsensationally expressed, is far more radical than anything committed in the name of “feisty”; hers is firmly a woman’s world, and it is our responsibility to decide how firmly or fearfully we choose to embrace and accept it.
Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main
To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality
With wide-embracing love
Thy spirits animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears
(Emily Brontë, “No Coward Soul Is Mine,” 25 January 1846)
By: Marcello Carlin
Published on: 2007-04-16