One of the most anticipated albums of the year turns out to be the most sedate work of the reclusive British singer-songwriter's career.
Discovered in her teens in the '70s by Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, Kate Bush released her first two albums in 1978, focusing on lilting, traditional songcraft and showing off her high vocal range on songs like "Wuthering Heights" and "The Man With the Child in his Eyes."
But in 1980, she began producing her own work and the resulting albums of the '80s, Never for Ever, The Dreaming, Hounds of Love and The Sensual World took on a more layered, rhythmic and often dark storytelling focus. She pushed the envelope of the pop song in new, daring directions and in the process crafted amazing songs and singles like “Running Up That Hill,” Hounds of Love,” “Cloudbusting,” “Army Dreamers,” “The Sensual World,” “This Woman's Work,” “Lily,” “Experiment IV” and more. .
She's best known in pop music for "Running Up the Hill" and "This Woman's Work," which colors the central scene of the movie She's Having a Baby, and her duet with Peter Gabriel on his "Don't Give Up."
She's named as an influence on everyone from Tori Amos to Sarah McLachlan, but in the 12 years since the release of 1993's The Red Shoes, Bush all but disappeared from the musical map to have and raise her son, Bertie. Every year rumors surfaced that she was in the midst of recording something…but each year came and went with no new CD. Finally, this month, Bush unveiled her work of the last dozen years, Aerial, a double album of 16 songs. It's a concept album of sorts; the songs follow the passing of a day's time. It opens with its most upbeat track, the single “King of the Mountain,” a homage to Elvis Presley that begins disc one, labeled A Sea of Honey.
Between that and the quiet strains of “Nocturn” and final dawn track “Aerial,” on the Sky of Honey disc, Bush crafts a slipstream soundscape featuring beautiful, langorous ballads, a Renaissance madrigal sung to her son “Bertie,” (“you bring me so much joy and then you bring me more joy”) and a song about a woman's day cleaning up the mud of her children and then celebrating the strangely sensual nature of the washing machine.
I've said in the past that I'd listen to Bush sing the phone book; her voice is too emotive and entrancing to describe. I doubt that I ever thought she'd test me and sing the numerical value of Pi…which she does in the song of the same name. It's a quietly oscillating track about a person infatuated with numbers, and Bush does indeed sing the extended numerical value of the mathematical figure as she describes the man with an “obsessive nature and a complete infatuation with the calculation of pi.”
If that isn't odd enough, the next track “Mrs. Bartolozzi,” which has the sparse piano/strings/lyrical melody feeling of Bush's earliest work, opens with a remembrance of a rainy day when children tracked mud through the house, then seques into throwing their clothes in the wash along with those of her own and her lover's, and she makes a sensual verse about his clothes intertwining with hers before describing his shirt out on the line billowing like it was filled with him. It's an odd song because it doesn't really ground us on whether the woman is waiting at home for her man to return while cleaning up after the kids, or if he's dead or gone by choice.
“Invisible” follows, with a throbbing bassline, a background whistle and dreamlike guitar strums as Bush sings about finding a book on how to be invisible. It's a hypnotic track, and leads into another echoey, langorous track in “Joanni,” which has a trace of the old polyrhythmic Kate, but it's subdued by slow washes of synthesizers and a very quiet melody. The first disc ends with “The Coral Room,” a gentle piano hymn where Bush croons of memories of milk in a jug in a town draped in fisherman's net.
The second disc opens with the sounds of nature, and a child observing, “Mommy, the day is full of birds/sounds like they're saying words.” For the rest of the disc, bird sounds will slip in and out, as Bush croons a handful of somnambulent tracks that are both gorgeous and lulling. In “Sunset” she slips into a jazzy Spanish guitar jam before the birds begin singing again on the pensive “Aerial Tal,” where Bush mimics the bird song before the wash of synths and guitars kicks in again for “Somewhere in Between,” another dreamy mix of vocal and dream that offers a haunting, hummable chorus duet.
It's all strangely beautiful, but not exactly what fans might expect after the lush pop of The Red Shoes or The Sensual World. There are no “Running Up That Hill”s on this disc – this is the kind of album to put on as you prepare for sleep, or wind down after a long stressful day. It's quiet, sumptuous and velvety soft. Where in the past, Bush challenged listeners with complex rhythms and haunting sounds, the two discs of Aerial are pure reverie. It's both a disappointment for long-term fans looking for a blast of the ‘80s Kate, and a gift. Bush has always followed her muse throughout her career, never standing still. There are traces of the earliest lilting style of Bush tucked here and there on Aerial, as well as the expressive, growling bass that typifies her later work. And on “Nocturn,” as she sings with a background choir and an urgent but understated bass, she offers a new future direction, a William Orbit-esque mix of dancefloor urgency and quiet dreamscape that builds into a shrilly powerful The Dreaming-esque vocal exercise that shows even through the jazzy lullabyes, Bush still has a subversive power. This song, which blends into “Aerial,” were worth the decade wait on their own.
Through all these tracks, her voice soars, leading the listener to a Peter Pan world of sonic adventure and dream. Aerial is bottomless, aloft on a wind of motherly love and celebration for life. It ends with its title track, where Bush imitates birdsong and then breaks into laughter, suggesting that the birds are whooping it up out there. It's an affirming, wonderful track that slips in and out of rhythms and dream, and offers a viewpoint unbiased by cynicism or negativity.
The laughter – and the dreams – are contagious.