Assessing the catalog of art pop’s one true queen
As reissues go, they’re bare bones as can be; just the albums, remastered. No booklet, no liner notes, and just one (one!) previously unreleased track.
Then again, it’s hardly that surprising; pleas for the reissue of the video collection The Whole Story on DVD fell on deaf ears, until the arrival of youtube made that somewhat redundant (but an official release of Before the Dawn on DVD would still be nice). Perhaps the newfound interest in Kate Bush’s back catalogue that came about due to her 2014 Before the Dawn shows (eight of her albums re-entered the UK charts after the shows were announced), spurred her into deciding that maybe the time had come to to spruce up things a bit. So you get the albums, remastered. And that’s all.
It’s a remarkable catalogue of work. After initially bending to the record company’s will, Bush gradually eased them out of the picture, building her own studio and eventually setting up her own record company, which allowed her to work at her own pace. “I could’ve made more records,” she told writer Tom Doyle in 2005. “That would have been an easy choice. So, I had that choice and I chose not to.” So, the music comes when it comes. A gap of over a decade between The Red Shoes and Aerial? And only two studio albums since then? Sorry to disappoint, but that’s just the way it is.
The music encompasses a dazzling array of styles, from the melodic singer-songwriter material of the early years, the powerful rhythms of what we’d now call Bush’s “middle period,” to the more conceptual approach of her latest releases. The new remastering does give the music a brighter, clearer sound, especially if you haven’t listened to your old records in a while. The albums are available individually, in two CD box sets, and four vinyl box sets. Here’s a closer look into Kate Bush: Remastered Part I:
The Kick Inside (1978) A striking debut. For all its lush melodicism, The Kick Inside touches on dark topics: incest, suicide, war, loss, death. Even the love songs are tinged with sadness; “Feel It,” “Oh To Be in Love” and “L’Amour Looks Something Like You” play like a trilogy of sorts, documenting the intense start and quick end of an affair. And following “Room for the Life,” a celebration of motherhood, with the album’s title track, a tale of a woman who kills herself to spare the family the shame of her becoming pregnant by her own brother, is a disturbing juxtaposition. The piano is very much in the foreground, along with Bush’s high-pitched, ever-polarizing vocals — most spectacularly, of course, on her breakthrough hit, “Wuthering Heights.” Still one of her most stunning songs, Bush does more than inhabit the character; she aurally becomes the ghost of the doomed, passionate Catherine Earnshaw, pining for her “only master,” Heathcliff, as she stalks the “wiley, windy moors.”
Lionheart (1978) Bush has always disparaged her second album, rushed out in a matter of months to capitalize on the success of The Kick Inside. There’s a sense of unease running throughout, from the depression of “Symphony in Blue” (“The color of my room and my mood”), through the inner psychological turmoil of “Full House,” to the paranoia of the closing number, “Hammer Horror.” Most of the songs were drawn from her stockpile, but one of the new ones, “Coffee Homeground,” which has Bush adopting a German accent as she sidesteps a determined poisoner, pointed the way to a direction she’d explore more fully in the future; taking on a new character to tell a story. But the fact that Bush felt lacking in both inspiration and sufficient time for the album becomes even clearer in hindsight. Lionheart is, atypically, a paler copy of The Kick Inside; in the future, no Bush album would ever sound much like its predecessor.
Never For Ever (1980) On Lionheart, Andrew Powell’s producer/arranger credit was followed by the notation “assisted by Kate.” On this album, Bush stepped up to co-producer (a role shared with Jon Kelly), and really began to stretch herself creatively. The vivid imagery in the songs makes them more like short films than music numbers; indeed, two of the songs were directly inspired by movies (“The Wedding List” based on François Truffaut’s La Mariée était en noir [The Bride Wore Black], the story of a widow tracking down the men responsible for her husband’s death, and “The Infant Kiss” based on the 1961 film version of The Innocents, about a governess convinced that adult ghosts inhabit the bodies of the children she cares for). Other gems include the powerful anti-war song “Army Dreamers” (characteristically set to a deceptively gentle melody), Bush’s vision of a nuclear holocaust in “Breathing,” and the delightful “Babooshka,” wherein a suspicious wife entraps her husband in infidelity, then showers him with broken glass.
The Dreaming (1982) At last the sole producer of her albums (as she would remain in the future), Bush made a commanding statement with The Dreaming. This tumultuous, exhilarating album saw her adopting a variety of personas: Cockney thief (“There Goes a Tenner”), Viet Cong fighter (“Pull Out the Pin”), an Australian plundering the outback (“The Dreaming”), and Harry Houdini’s wife (“Houdini”). Despite Bush being all of 23-years-old, there’s a sense of anxiety, a fear of time running out, in “Sat in Your Lap” and “Suspended in Gaffa,” the pounding drums on the former underscoring the urgency. Bush’s voice never soared to greater heights, but it also drops to a deeper, spookier register. Her frustration finally boils over in the climactic “Get Out of My House” (inspired by Stephen King’s book The Shining), where she bolts the door against the outside world and even transforms into a mule to thwart a would-be invader. The Fairlight synthesizer, which had been introduced on Never For Ever, was used in full force here, adding further sonic depth to Bush’s masterpiece.
Hounds of Love (1985) Three years after the sturm und drang of The Dreaming, Bush returned with an album that was (somewhat) more musically restrained, but was just as emotionally powerful. In the days of vinyl, side one was the more conventional side of five songs. The beguiling “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)” is a melancholy meditation on our inability to ever truly understand another person’s inner life; Bush transforms herself into a gospel choir in the glorious “The Big Sky”; “Cloudbusting,” inspired by Peter Reich’s memoir about his eccentric father, Wilhelm Reich, is a song of almost unbearable poignancy. Side two featured Bush’s first extended conceptual piece, “The Ninth Wave,” a harrowing night-of-the-soul as experienced by a woman lost at sea (listen to it with the lights out). A complete tour de force, from start to finish; generally considered to be her finest work.
The Sensual World (1989) Bush described this album as “very much a chance for me to express myself as a female in a female way.” Accordingly, the songs are grounded in the realm of relationships, as some of the titles make obvious (“Between a Man and a Woman”). Not to mention the title track, in which Bush reworks the erotic soliloquy spoken by Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses, because the Joyce estate wouldn’t allow her to use the actual text. No matter; Bush has little problem conjuring up her own world of sensual delights, as well as new sonic pleasures, via her inspired use of the Trio Bulgarka as backing vocalists. But this is also an album about the struggle to make a connection, whatever the cost, whether it’s for “the hand that smacked” or “the hand to hold” (“Reaching Out”). There are few happy endings. On “Deeper Understanding,” the narrator shuns human contact for the insularity of the computer, while “This Woman’s Work” is a cri de coeur, a hymn of regret about all the things you should have done for a loved one.
The Red Shoes (1993) There’s a tendency toward excess on this album. Case in point: “Why Should I Love You?,” which started out as a straight forward, simple demo (find it on youtube), until she gave it to Prince, who slathered on vocals, keyboards, and guitars. She scaled back his overdubs, but then added the Trio Bulgarka, to no discernable effect, as well as British comedian Lenny Henry, trumpets, trombone, sax, Flugelhorn, her own keyboards, drums…you get the idea. Snappy as they are, “Rubberband Girl” and “Eat the Music” both run on too long. And the title track, jointly inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale and the 1948 film, is giddy (those rolled r’s on “rrrrreally happenin’ to ya!”), but somehow doesn’t quite soar as it should. It was a fraught period for Bush; her mother died while making the album, and her longtime relationship with her bassist Del Palmer, came to an end. No wonder that she sings “I feel that life has blown/a great big hole through me” in “Lily,” as she pleas for spiritual salvation. While still an enjoyable album, what once sounded effortless, now feels forced. The harsher quality of digital recording also gave The Red Shoes a more dated sound.
And then she didn’t release an album for another 12 years…