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Friday, July 20, 2012

Deeper Understanding: the songs of Kate Bush, part three

It is fair to say that as an artist Kate Bush has always trod her own path. She admits that she rarely listens to popular music, especially her own recordings, which explains why she stands as a reference point for other artists, who surely are influenced by her work. You regularly hear the latest alt-pop female artist being lauded as "the new Kate Bush", but Kate herself is beyond comparison. Simply put she is unique in popular music, a touchstone and an extraordinary one-off talent who now, in the fourth decade of her career, seems to have fully discovered her potential. The first part of this exploration of Kate's songwriting saw how the teenage Kate, a prodigious and prolific songwriter, produced scores of piano-based songs that survived their translation onto her early albums pretty much intact [Part One: The Craft Of Love]. Then in the second stage of her career, as she took control of production, Kate's piano compositions became the jumping off point for incredible aural tapestries that were finessed and polished in the studio, with layer upon layer of richness added to the mix [Part Two: This Woman's Work]. So how does the Kate that reappeared in 2005 after her infamous 12-year absence compare to those earlier Kates? How has her songwriting evolved and what does the nature of her latest work promise for what's to come?

If you've ever wondered what a more timely follow-up to The Red Shoes may have sounded like, then you should look no further than Kate's comeback single in 2005, King Of The Mountain. Apparently this was written and even part-recorded in the mid-1990s and it very much sounds like a natural progression from her work at that time. In fact for me King Of The Mountain, though a very fine song and one of my favourites, is a red herring, suggesting little had changed for the Kate that returned to music after a decade spent focusing on her personal life. It promised that her forthcoming album Aerial was going to be business as usual, when in fact it marked a giant leap in Kate's approach to both songwriting and production.

Aerial took the format of Hounds Of Love, one side standalone songs, the other a concept piece and extended it to create a double album. The individual songs which formed the first album, A Sky Of Honey, were certainly an eclectic mix. The experimental Pi, sets the mathematical equation to music with a throbbing, circular synth that is as wondrous as any sonic backing Kate has produced. Her young son, Bertie, is lauded in a madrigal and with its evocation of the joy of motherhood explains fully why she decided to take a leave of absence. How To Be Invisible is perhaps a little plodding, but Joanni is like a lost cut from The Dreaming, beautifully evoking a medieval battlefield with a majestic Joan of Arc leading her troops. It even has what appears to be a chorus of Muppets joining in towards the climax. What these songs all share is the freedom to explore the boundaries of their subjects, with Kate extending the average length of her usual compositions by a minute or two, allowing the songs to breathe and spread their wings a bit further than before. There is also an emphasis on the instrumentation, with Kate allowing her guest performers room to shine without the need for multiple layering of sounds and vocals. Overall A Sky Of Honey finds Kate sounding more relaxed than we left her in 1993, clearly enjoying making music again and with a sense of freedom that for me harks back to her first productions on Never For Ever.

The most marked development though can be found on the two piano-led tracks on the album. Mrs Bartolozzi is a stream of consciousness, where the narrator slips from the mundanity of her household chores to recall a lost (missing?) lover. There is a darkness to the song that suggests something is afoot, but Kate allows the listener to create their own version of the story. There are just enough clues to suggest everything from a recent divorce to the cover-up of a murder. Reviews at the time made much of Kate's use of a washing machine as a central theme in the song, with many taking the metaphor literally. If you think this song is about laundry, then Kate is probably not the artist for you. Apart from the bold use of imagery, the most exciting aspect of the song is the composition itself. The song stops and starts, jumps off at tangents and circles around on itself. Not for a moment do you feel able to anchor on to the familiar patterns of a pop song. Kate has decided to step outside convention and let the song dictate its own form.

On A Coral Room Kate takes this a step further. It is a song about memory and remembrance, an ode on the loss of her mother, and it is quite simply the most beautiful piece of music I have ever heard in my life. When I first heard it I broke down uncontrollably out of nowhere, it somehow reached in and plucked at my heart, connecting with emotions and feelings so primal I lost all control. The song was deeply personal to Kate and she hesitated at sharing it, but I am eternally grateful she did. There is no hint of a chorus, no verses, just exploration of the themes and the occasional motif that helps you navigate the song. Kate's vocal is sublime, a decade of rest has found it deeper and richer than it was, but with its ability to rip a note apart intact. This is music to treasure, needing stillness and calm to appreciate it and with the ability to physically impact the listener.

If A Sea Of Honey found Kate freer and more relaxed in her craft, then the concept piece A Sky Of Honey confirmed that this was Kate 2.0, a rebooted, re-energised renaissance woman. The concept is simple, following a day from a lovely afternoon to the following sunrise, with light the central theme. Although there are nine movements, Kate very much envisaged it as one piece, to be listened to from start to finish. The gentle opener Prelude sets the scene and introduces us to some of the linking themes of the piece, bird song and a melodic motif that will reappear throughout. It also has the vocal debut of her son, Bertie, who also pops in and out of the proceedings in a way that is genuinely charming. Prologue is a piano-led musing on the passing of time, the passage of light across continents and the ending of summer. The composition is airy, with Kate adding layers of sound, but with a painter's touch, a dab here, a dot there, building the picture bit by bit. A Greek chorus of Kates leads us into, appropriately, An Architects' Dream and The Painter's Link, which finds Rolf Harris playing a street painter, whose work is observed by Kate. It is wonderfully descriptive, you can perfectly visualise the work coming together, before a sudden rainburst interrupts, transforming both the painting and the music into a beautiful Sunset.

Sunset is one of my top Kate compositions, it starts with a jazzy wallow in the colours of the sky at dusk, breaking in to a rolling, breaking sea of sound. Finally we are transported to Spain, where flamenco dancers celebrate the coming of the night. Kate's voice is gorgeous, every syllable is placed, full and redolent of light. The birds return to duet with Kate on Aerial Tal (no, really) before dusk beckons on the almost funky Somewhere In Between. Here Kate sounds her most sensual, suggesting love and sex and magic without the need for heavy panting or a thong. This is pop music for grown-ups. Kate has never made music for the Ibiza crowd, but Nocturn is the closest she's come. Here Kate and her lover drive to the beach on a moonlit night, before undressing and wading out into the sea. It is literally blissful, you can almost feel the waves lapping around your waist and the cool water washing against your limbs. The music is hypnotic, like a chillout track from a club night, but somehow remains a Kate Bush song. Again, her voice is superb, breathy and seductive. The Greek chorus returns for the climax of the song, which is dramatic and stirring in a way that defies description, you just have to hear it. The closing movement, Aerial, brings all the threads throughout the piece to a stunning conclusion. No gentle summing up, instead the song hits with the shock of new light breaking the darkness of the night. Kate urges us to get up on the roof and welcome the sun, like a modern druidic ritual. It is full of surprise, an unsettling burst of laughter, an outrageous guitar solo, it takes you up to the roof and dangles you off the edge. Brilliant.

Aerial was a triumphant comeback for Kate, it showed that not only did she still have something to say, she was not finished with developing as an artist. In fact, interviews with Kate in this second coming suggest she very much feels she is still learning her craft, both as a songwriter, musician and producer. It was perhaps this sense that she was finally finding her groove that led her to revisit tracks from The Sensual World and The Red Shoes albums and give them a Kate 2.0 makeover, but you can read my thoughts on that in an earlier blog [Unfinished Business: Director's Cut]. Director's Cut is fascinating from the perspective of examining how Kate's approach to production had changed, but apart from airy reworkings of Moments Of Pleasure and This Woman's Work, it did not provide much insight into how her songwriting had progressed. Kate was surprised at how long it took to rework her old material, but the sense of closure it gave her fed immediately into the desire to create something new.

Kate had the idea to create another concept piece, but this time with a linking theme rather than a single narrative. In her own words the album would comprise of seven songs "set against a background of falling snow". She was at pains to stress this was not a Christmas album, but rather a winter one, revelling in that mystical season of frost and fantasy. Despite the short tracklist, the album would last for over an hour, immediately signalling the further loosening of song structures and the abandoning of the three-minute pop song format, perhaps for good. Only one song has anything approaching a recognisable chorus and even that hardly has a sing-a-long lyric. 50 Words For Snow is Kate Bush unbound, now completely free of expectations of record companies and critics and fully comfortable at last with both her working space and her abilities, this is the album every fan has always wanted her to make.

Interestingly, Kate said she had gone back to the piano to create the compositions for the album, working the songs out fully before taking them into the studio. She has come full circle from the banshee-like teen, banging out song after song into the small hours on her upright, to the middle-aged mum, playing with the same joyful abandon, with a bag of bone meal resting on the piano top. Kate's new songs are marked as much by the space and air in the melodies as by the notes, they truly breathe, seeming to decide for themselves when a thought is complete or a message given. This is not music to play in the background while distracted with other tasks. It is as if the information age with its social networks, two screen viewing and bite-size previews doesn't exist in Kate's world. She creates music that demands the sole attention of the listener. Put the iPad down, turn off the TV and power down the mobile. This is going to take a while.

The opening track, Snowflake, follows one tiny flake as it falls from its birth cloud down to the ground, all the time calling out to one person to find it. After having his voice computerised for the remake of Deeper Understanding on Director's Cut, Kate's son Bertie finally has his moment to fully shine. His chorister-like vocal is truly haunting and magical. This is no vanity of Kate's, the boy has talent. Kate appears in the song's refrain, a simple couplet that speaks volumes against the delicacy of the music: "the world is so loud, keep falling and I'll find you". The composition of the song owes more to classical music than current pop, but let's be clear, Kate is a pop artist in the sense that she is pushing the boundaries of current music, not retreating to the past. The piano track is a work of art in its own right, it is astonishing to think that Kate doesn't write music in the traditional way, marking notes on staves. Perhaps it is this freedom from traditional training that allows her to realise the music she hears in her head without questioning whether it fits expected form and structure.

Lake Tahoe is a ghost story based on the myth that a woman in Victorian dress occasionally rises to the surface of that cavernous American lake. Again Kate employs male voices, this time in the form of classical singers Stefan Roberts and Michael Wood, who sound suitably spooky. Again the piano track is glorious, but there are some gorgeous orchestral embellishments throughout. For some reason this track takes me back to Lionheart, Kate's theatrical second album. It has echoes of some of her compositions from that time, as well as a touch of their drama. I don't want to spoil the story, but you will look at a sleeping dog with new eyes after hearing it. The more you listen to this song the more rewarded you will be and yes, you can feel the falling snow.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to take a snowman as your lover? Well if you have then Misty is the track for you. You'll never look at a carrot the same way again! The other big surprise here is that Misty is effectively a jazz record. It is thirteen and a half minutes of what feels like extemporisation, it is an album in itself, so full of inspiration, experiment and complexity. Kate would probably not feature very high on most people's list of great jazz artists, but on this evidence she has the potential. Her voice is certainly a match for the intricacies of the genre and as it ages it seems even more perfectly suited. I hope Kate pushes this envelope even further on her next album, her new style of songwriting and approach to arrangements suggest it's not only pop's boundaries she can test.

The closest thing to a pop song on the album, and by close I mean in the same galaxy, Wild Man finds us on the hunt for the Abominable Snowman. Kate's music evokes the Tibetan landscape and her empathy for the creature is evident. The chorus includes "Lhakpa-La" "Garo" and "Dipu Marak", suggesting it is not necessarily designed for Karaoke night, but that hasn't put me off, of course. It comes as a blast of fresh, icy air after the properly glacial pace of the first three tracks and shows Kate can still do verse, chorus, repeat if she feels like it.

Snowed In At Wheeler Street is a love story across time, featuring the best vocal Elton John has delivered since Sacrifice. Two strangers meet only to find they have been lovers throughout history and fight to stay together this time. The song follows the narrative where it leads, and it leads to what appears to be another anguished separation. Kate and Elton's voices blend well together and each provides their own moments of gut-wrenching emotion. I have no doubt if Radio 2 played 8 minute love songs without a chorus this would be a number one hit. Oh well, one can dream.

The title track is a fun novelty, with Stephen Fry playing a linguistics professor who conjures up fifty words for snow, riffing on the myth of the Eskimos' similar catalogue. It is enjoyable, but does not really bear multiple listenings. In a way it is the linguist's version of what Kate did for mathematician's on Pi. Great fun and Fry's voice is always a pleasure to hear.

The closing track, Among Angels, is another perfect gem of a piano ballad. Kate reaches out to support a friend, while hiding an unrequited love. The titular angels surround and protect her friend, bringing a shimmer of summer to thaw out the winter's grip. This has to be one of Kate's best ever vocals, beautiful in its slight imperfections, bringing a sense of reality just like the false start that Kate wisely chose to let stay on the track. The song ends with a surprising abruptness, leaving things pleasantly unresolved, just like life.

With 50 Words For Snow Kate has truly mastered her craft. She has earned the freedom to create music in her own way, without reference to fashion or finance. Rumour has it she has recently refitted her home studio in preparation for beginning work on her next album, she said she already had some ideas rattling around. After her extended absence, it seems as if Kate has found her second wind and it no longer seems foolhardy to expect a new Kate Bush album to become a (semi) regular event. If the almost universal acclaim that greeted 50 Words For Snow has any impact on Kate, then surely she could take it as a sign that her new expansive approach to songwriting could be taken further. One thing is for certain, whatever form the next Kate Bush album takes, we will never have heard its like before.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. You can post feedback below or to my Twitter account, @divasblogger. Sign up for alerts at or follow me on Twitter. Aerial, Director's Cut and 50 Words For Snow are out now on Fish People. Also you can hear a selection of the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: Deeper Understanding

1 comment:

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