Thursday, 8 July 2010

Aerial (2005) by Kate Bush: 5 Years On

It's five years this year since Kate Bush released her long-awaited and well-received last album, Aerial (2005). I've been revisiting the record quite a bit recently (it's perfect listening for summertime) and wanted to share what I wrote about it for Wears the Trousers here.

Absence, it seems, really can make the heart grow fonder, even in the music press. If Kate Bush had continued making records at regular intervals over the last twelve years, it's likely that she would have been subjected to the same kind of mixed-to-harsh critical judgement that greeted her last two albums, The Sensual World (1989) and, in particular, The Red Shoes (1993). Reviewers of those records at the time accused Bush of operating below her capabilities, though both albums were in fact full of inventive and rewarding music. Now, however, it seems that all has been forgiven, and the belated release of Aerial has been treated by certain publications as something akin to the Second Coming. The excitement over the album's arrival indicates that the music press might be a little less fickle than we'd imagined and suggests that Bush is still held in a great deal of affection for her unique body of work.

For Bush’s fans, of course, every year of silence that has passed has made the prospect of a new opus ever more tantalising, yet more unlikely. All of these factors conspire to make Aerial unquestionably the year’s most anticipated release. But can any one record withstand such weight of expectation?

The answer, happily, is an emphatic "yes." Careering from the domestic to the epic, from the inside of a washing machine to the bottom of the sea, Aerial offers listeners all the wit, whimsy, weirdness and wonder (not to mention the impeccable musicianship) of Bush’s best work. In fact, just as Elvis in first single "King Of The Mountain" transcends the trappings of fame, wealth and possibly even death to take his place on some Parnassus of the mind, so Aerial surpasses the hype that has surrounded its release, sitting above it a bit loftily but willing to reveal its complex beauty to any listener prepared to give it the time and attention it deserves. This is a record to lose yourself in.

Actually, make that two records. For, in a nostalgic nod to Bush’s beloved vinyl era, Aerial is a double album, one which, twenty years on, duplicates the structure of 1985’s much revered Hounds Of Love, its two parts comprising a set of “independent” tracks and a song cycle. While the album preserves the stylistic verve and heterogeneity of Bush's earlier releases, there’s a new and greater spaciousness to the arrangements, leaving more room for the distinctive vocals. Though more restrained than ever (there's none of the way-out vocal experimentation featured on the wondrous The Dreaming [1982] here), Bush’s voice still retains its remarkable capacity for drama and metamorphosis.

Along with her singing, one of the greatest aspects of Kate Bush’s music lies in the wonderful idiosyncrasy of the subject matter of her songs, and on this score too Aerial doesn’t disappoint. On the first disc, "A Sea Of Honey," the bracing "King Of The Mountain" segues into"Pi," a eulogy for an obsessive enumerator and almost certainly the most seductive maths lesson in history with Bush cooing numbers and decimal points over a chugging organ motif. "Mrs. Bartolozzi" is an even more vivid character sketch; the song is not "about" a washing machine as such, but rather offers an oblique portrait of widowhood in which memories of domestic duty and the freedom of the sea may or may not assuage the protagonist’s current isolation. Meanings are similarly fluid on the brooding, cinematic "Joanni". With its arresting battle imagery, the song may nominally be "about" Joan of Arc, but Bush’s phrasing of the title also conjures links with another significant Joni. The funky "How To Be Invisible" is the record’s most playful moment, with its witty witch’s spell and wry comment on Bush’s own "obscurity."

Informed by the birth of her son and the death of her mother, respectively, two of the loveliest songs on "A Sea Of Honey" are also the most personal. "Bertie" is an unadulterated expression of maternal delight and pride as Bush repeats “you bring me so much joy” over Renaissance strings, the simplicity of the statement accentuating her emotional intensity. The stunning "A Coral Room" is a shivers-down-the-spine piano ballad that moves from an underwater city to Bush’s intimate memories of her mother and offers a meditation on the passage of time; the song contains some of her most striking lyrical imagery yet. Indeed, in keeping with the sparser approach to instrumentation, there is a new clarity and precision to her songwriting on this record. You see that shirt on the washing line, that spider climbing out of a jug, Joanni “in her armour.”

The second disc, "A Sky Of Honey," is a carefully constructed nine-track sequence that traces the passage of a summer’s day, from afternoon to sunset and night on to the following morning; birds chirp, Bush chortles, and Rolf Harris sings. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard, and yet pure and unmistakably Kate, as joyous as "The Ninth Wave" was bleak. Listening to it, you feel your senses being sharpened one by one. Bertie kicks things off, directing his parents’ attention to a “day…full of birds.” Indeed, birdsong is a central motif, whether sampled or mimicked. Light is another central theme, and as the cycle progresses patterns develop and images recur. “This is a song of colour,” Bush sings on the glorious "Sunset" as a piano refrain gives way to a delirious flamenco interlude, while "Prologue" finds her at her most lushly romantic, “talking Italian” over a Michael Kamen orchestral arrangement.

Just when you fear that it’s all becoming too New Age ambient, a bewitching melody or killer chorus swoops in to orientate you. The shifts through moods of reflection, sadness and exhilaration are quite stunning. Vaughan Williams and Delius (a previous Bush song subject) are presences, and the album blurs the boundaries between musical genres as assuredly as it blurs the distinctions between night and day, dream and reality, forging a space, as one song would have it, "Somewhere In Between." The record concludes with the ebullient, pulsing title track and Bush’s urgent desire to go “up on the roof,” an image of physical and spiritual transcendence to match the one that the album started with. By now “all of the birds are laughing”; so is Kate, and so are we.

In a recent interview, Bush stated her belief that “music should put you in a trance frenzy,” and, at its best, Aerial accomplishes precisely that. It's a mature, inventive and beguiling record that expands the boundaries of the album form. Yes, there are longeurs and minor indulgences, but it wouldn’t be a Bush record without them, and for her admirers, even the "flaws" have an air of reassurance. Twelve years may have been a long time to wait, but this kind of art is built to last. 80 minutes of music, and as soon as it's over you can’t wait to hear the whole thing again.


  1. Awesome review, Alex. Aerial is, without question, a monumental achievement, and I think that Kate Bush's accomplishment on this record will only become clearer with time.

    The somber mood and the opening images of "A Coral Room" always strike me as being a somewhat abstract response to the photographic images of the fallen World Trade Center towers on 9/11. Not certain about that, but I certainly feel the emotional correlation whenever I listen to the song.

  2. I've been listening to Kate Bush's music this year. Just ranked her albums over at my blog today, if you're interested.
    Aerial (2005), I particularly like disc 2. I'm convinced the double album will grow on me with subsequent listens, though, as it has with you.