12 years is a long time in pop music. It's so long, that before heralding her new release, some journalists even have to explain who Kate Bush is, and the impact and influence that her unique canon of singles and albums had on a generation of musicians. But 12 years is not the length of time Kate Bush takes to write and record an album, perfectionist though she may be. In fact "Aerial" took five or six years, but the process was still more arduous than its effortless-sounding melodies would have you imagine. It's nowhere near overwrought, unlike Peter Gabriel's "Up", a work with a similarly long gestation. For the rest of the time she concentrated on her family, and why not, with such a body of work behind her she fully deserves the time to enjoy life.
1993's "The Red Shoes" saw her flirt with poppier sounds, appropriately to its dancing theme. But that came across more like a piece of theatre, less like the real Kate. Twelve years later, "Aerial" seems like her most personal, inward-looking work yet. Reflecting the comfortable and happy domestic life she seems to enjoy, there's none of the shock effects of "The Dreaming", the grand poetic statements of "Hounds of Love", or even the exoticism of "The Sensual World". Instead it's concerned with a simple, subtle expression. The first disc, labelled "A Sea Of Honey", features seven character songs, mostly inspired, in some sense, by people. A simple, pastoral romanticism guides the second disc's continuous song cycle, entitled "A Sky Of Honey". Seemingly oblivious to any musical trends of the last decade, she's content to just arrange and deliver her music in her natural language. Her greatest strength, her renowned singing voice, always takes the lead, with the piano as its natural partner. Her beloved 1980s-style fretless bass, soft-rock guitars, token percussion and strings are more like a decoration over this voice and piano base.
Kate announced her return in understated fashion with the first single "King of the Mountain". This was so understated that she even mumbles the first verse in mock-Elvis fashion. The king of the song's title being that King, of course. Although gracing itself with a soaring refrain of "the wind is whistling..." this song was underwhelming by the standards of most first singles, just as "Rubberband Girl" was to "The Red Shoes". But then again there is really no obvious choice for a single, even among the "normal songs" of the first disc. "How To Be Invisible" might work at a stretch, with its casual indie-fied guitar licks, but there's no real hooky melody. Rather the star of this song is its evocative lyrics of inconspicuity. And it's more cheerful than Radiohead's "How to Disappear Completely". Following smoothly from this is the similarly subtle "Joanni", whose sweeping awe-struck atmosphere was inspired by Joan of Arc, but this has the least interesting soft-pop music on the first side.
She seems to be more in touch with her geeky side than ever. As well as taking delight in juxtaposing birdsong, sound waveforms and musical notes in the cover, the song "π" (Pi) sees her singing with fascination about an obsessive mathematician. She shows the mark of a great vocalist by bringing lyricism to the mundane, in this case by caressing her voice around a sequence of digits from the circular constant itself. While all the time, a clockwork organ and thrumming guitar spiral around into infinity. Reclaiming the ordinary as a valid subject for artistic inspiration is a noble aim. And as well as on "π", this is put into practice even more startlingly on "Mrs. Bartolozzi", the album's first real emotional climax. To the merest splashes of solo piano, Kate sings about a housewife drifting into an erotically charged daydream while doing her family's laundry. It's interesting why people naturally find its refrain of "washing machine, washing machine" so disturbing, as if it's breaking a taboo to partner such mundane concepts with such emotionally-infused music. Although I admit that the "splishy, splooshy" backing vocals are even on the scary side for me.
Two of the people are real members of her family. Firstly her son, the recipient of much of her attention over the last few years, is given a tribute on "Bertie". It would have been easy to make the mother-to-child sweet nothings of the lyrics into something inane. But thankfully the baby-talk is given life by an effortless folksy lilt, adorned with a consort of Tudor viols in Kate's typical musically-eclectlc fashion. Suitably her late mother is remembered with some more artistically profound lyrics, for the album's most intimate moment, the supremely epxressive "A Coral Room". The piano part veers close to a rehash of "This Woman's Work", but this may have been deliberate - a reference to motherhood perhaps?
Although Kate has done the conceptual song cycle before, the second disc of this album stands alone in her canon. Unlike "The Ninth Wave", the darkly theatrical flip side to "Hounds of Love", "A Sky Of Honey" comes across as one long song, using its space like a landscape on a painter's big canvas. Here, her preoccupations are the pastoral and romantic. Birdsong capturing the imagination, the creative process of the lone artist, the evening sky, and the pleasures of paddling in the sea, these are rooted in earthly beauty, far from matters of life and death. Its palette is still primarily voice and piano, fused with other soft rock sounds in a perfectionist production. But the whole cycle is guided by the natural response of Kate's voice to the words.
As this sequence has no real grand gestures, it's the little touches which make it sparkle. Like when the most fluidly beautiful of melodies emerges from the wash on "Sunset" for the key line "in a sea... of honey... / a sky... of honey...". The final Spanish guitar section of this song gives a welcome increase in the pace to the middle of the suite. On the deliciously drawn-out "Nocturn", Kate's silky voice is softened to an almost crooning lullaby. And when on the title track she finally exclaims "I wanna be up, up on the roof" to a shimmering Irish-toned keyboard backing, it's pure dance music. I fully expect this refrain to be sampled for a hands-in-the-air thump-thump remix, even though it's just about in that style already. That is, a better remix than that "Cloudbusting"-based track that was in the charts a few years ago!
"Aerial"'s musical facade may on the whole be unremarkable, but Kate seems to have outgrown gratuitous innovation. Instead she's content to focus on using her unmistakeable and hugely influential voice for melody and honest self-expression. She may be easy listening these days, and you may need to tune into Radio 2 to hear her records, but in 2005 Kate Bush still matters, as one of the strongest and most expressive voices in contemporary music.
December 16, 2005