Mysteries Of Desire: Kate Bush, Beyond The Hits
, September 2nd, 2014 10:08
As Kate Bush's live return fires eight of her albums back into the charts, Quietus writers take a look at their favourite deep cuts
'Oh To Be In Love' from The Kick Inside
Although The Kick Inside is, with critical faculties rigidly applied, perhaps the most dated record of Kate Bush's career, and her mercurial talents occasionally rendered earthbound by audibly session-muso style backing from blokes who'd recently been doing time in Pilot and Cockney Rebel, it's still magical enough to contain a glorious oddity like this halfway through its second side. Taking a glass-half-empty perspective on romance that would sound blasé coming from any other teenager, and marrying it to a bittersweet lament with a startlingly melodramatic chorus chant, Kate transcends both the 70s and her aural surroundings with the most graceful sigh of ennui committed to wax.
'Kashka From Baghdad' from Lionheart
Written in 1978, homosexuality had only been legal for fourteen years when Kate Bush sang "they know the way to be happy" as Kashka and his unnamed boyfriend twirl to an LP of oud and joza behind the net curtain of their rented room. Kate Bush, just like us, is outside their boarding house room - nose pressed up against the steamy windows watching their slender bodies move. Kashka is teaching his boyfriend to dance, his capable hands touch every part of him. She longs to be inside, to be warm, to be with them. We hear something like the wooden stick of a violin bow hitting the strings or an irregular carriage clock storing up its ticks before releasing them in a flurry - and when she plays the piano her hands are Kashka's hands moving over the body of his lover, his hip-bones, his nape, his spine. "I long to be with them", she sings. She must be so lonely. We become as lonely - and the music of her song becomes the music spilling from Kashka's room onto the grey London street. Grumbling neighbours and commuters pass by and tut at their waltzing shadows as Kashka whispers, "Left. Right. The other foot. I love you." "They never go for walks." Why? She doesn't give homophobes the satisfaction of affecting their behaviour or infiltrating her song - she gives Kashka and his boyfriend dignity - "the moon's not bright enough", she sings, certainly not as bright as their love. "La lune! La lune!" Even that beautiful queer moon is seemingly dimmed by their impressive passion.
'Lord Of The Reedy River' b-side of 'Sat In Your Lap'
Against a backwater of eerie ambient sound - she was in the first flush of the studio experimentation that led to The Dreaming - Kate Bush details an erotic encounter with a swan in murky shallows under a black night sky. Claiming the first person feminine from Donovan's pastoral faerie tale narrator she transforms his already eccentric conceit into a fevered anthropomorphic dream of species transgression. Staring, eyes full of feathers, into her uncanny lover's imperious, unknowably mute mask, she attempts to divine the primal depths of sexual instinct, somehow merge and transcend the limits of her human form. Thus Bush brings us closer than most to the nature of the beast within us all. Now she's returned to live performance from a retreat that ring fenced her dignity from the leering prurience that distorts much of pop's discourse (probably more so today than back in 1979 - O'Connor vs Cyrus anyone?) it's edifying to revisit this artist's invitation to submit, eyes wide shut, to the mysteries of desire. Must be the season of the witch.
'Pull Out The Pin' - from The Dreaming
While Bush is rightly feted for her ability to paint pictures with music, 'Pull Out The Pin' is perhaps the most successfully cinematic of all her songs. Inspired by a documentary on the Vietnam War, and containing more than a hint of Apocalypse Now!'s heart of darkness, Bush does a remarkable job of evoking the jungle's oppressive, threatening atmosphere using uncanny Fairlight panpipes and the feral growl of Danny Thompson's double bass, the noise of helicopters and cicadas cutting across the mix. Sung from the viewpoint of a Viet Cong fighter stalking an American GI, Bush presents a dichotomy in the chorus which I've never been able to completely fathom: "I love life - so pull out the pin!" The protagonist tries to alienate himself from his enemy, listing their differences - "they stink of the west, stink of sweat, stink of cologne and baccy, and all their Yankee hash" - but still he's hesitating. Is he just conflicted about killing another human being, or is he in fact a suicide bomber, unusual but not unknown at the time? Over tension-ratcheting guitar, Bush becomes increasingly exercised, screaming herself raw as she vacillates over the deed while Dave Gilmour's backing vocal urges her on. The stand-off remains unresolved right to the end, and it's almost a relief when Brian Bath plays the song out with a discordant, Fripp-esque solo that captures perfectly the track's queasy, unsettling vibe.
'Leave It Open' - from The Dreaming
It's tempting to view The Dreaming as a product of the cognitive dissonance that Bush must have felt as the disconnect between her public persona and her interior artistic life became ever greater. Even as she politely answers inane questions on light entertainment TV, we never get any real understanding of the person behind this dark, passion-fuelled music, as though all the psychic and emotional turbulence she was experiencing had been sublimated exclusively into her work. This manifests itself in the way that many of The Dreaming's songs are structured as internal dialogues, with multiple vocal lines interlocking and sometimes mocking each other. 'Leave It Open', perhaps the most mysterious and intense track on the album (and that's saying something), is a prime example. Over a stark, broken-down beat, Bush sings about self-control with sadistic relish - "I kept it in a cage, watched it weeping, but I made it stay" - in a dizzying range of voices. The effect is genuinely unnerving, particularly as the song is clearly building to a bona fide, neck-hairs-raised 'heavy bit'. When the drums suddenly explode into life (rivalling Phil Collins' famous gated reverb on 'In The Air Tonight' for sheer percussive clout), Bush goes completely apeshit over the top, hollering like some unhinged warrior queen. Then the noise subsides, leaving only a skin-crawlingly spooky loop of EVP-like vocal: "Breathe, let the weirdness in…"
'Suspended In Gaffa' - The Dreaming
Always a dab hand at straddling the cosmic and the mundane with style, here Bush may well be singing about a beatific vision or a purgatorial state of limbo, but she appears to comparing it to a kind of tape that roadies use to hold together battered guitar cases. Moreover, she's doing it in waltz-time, in a manner fit to give the word 'jaunty' a good name. Yet 'Suspended In Gaffa', which met with a distinctly frosty reception as a single during the period in which Kate was most misunderstood, remains at once haunting and mildly hysterical, jubilant and melancholy. As with so many of her finest moments, it's a song of uncertainty and insecurity, in which she manifests all the facets of her internal drama, from shrieking clarion calls to whispers of the subconscious. Yet even amidst the emotional tumult, the chorus of this ditty is visible from space.
'The Morning Fog' from The Hounds Of Love
What now after the hit parade of side one; after the utopias ('Cloudbusting') and dystopias ('Mother Stands for Comfort') of the family; after the radiance and cruelty of nature; after the body's dismemberment at the hands of the Fairlight ('Waking the Witch'); after the soul's Odyssean journey to the underworld of water and ice? What fraught new life, bursting first through the catharsis of 'Jig Of Life', and then the eight-and-a-half minutes that close The Ninth Wave, the second side of Hounds Of Love? 'Hello Earth' provides the slow, naked, lingering outpouring of sensation, like the long takes of landscape that recur in Werner Herzog's films of the same period. (The choral vocals that halo the song are taken from the shot of Isabelle Huppert wandering through fog in Herzog's Nosferatu.) The closing track, 'The Morning Fog', forms a matching bookend to 'Running Up That Hill', which turned the prosaic language of pop circa '85 - gated Roland snares, grandstanding treble guitars (to reappear gloriously on the coda of 'Love And Anger' four years later), slashing synths - to the level of poetry, now in a new, infinitely light register. Classical guitar by John Williams picks out points in the air like the falling lines of first light; treated violins by Bush's brother Paddy pick the contours of the emotional landscape like Impressionist brushstrokes. Del Palmer's remarkably free bass surges through the middle of the track, a guiding track, switching from two-note stabs to sinuous scurries, against which Kate's voice moves to the other extreme from the exploratory bursts of 'The Big Sky' and 'Jig Of Life' - a simple, subdued imagining of reconnection with lived experience ("I'd kiss the ground / I'll tell my mother / I'll tell my father") in its fullness. It resolves all the emotional strains of the album with barely a ripple of effort - less song than a tousling breath.
'Watching You, Without Me' from Hounds Of Love
Hounds Of Love is arguably Kate Bush's creative pinnacle, critically acclaimed, wildly commercially successful, self-produced and ubiquitous because of its clutch of hit singles. It is forgotten by some maybe that there were a great many other beautiful moments on The 9th Wave side of the album. 'Watching You, Without Me' is one of them. Bush has always had an incredible knack of telling a story using few words, whilst leaving the listener with room to make their own interpretation of the song. This is a song about love and loss, has she left him? Or is he being haunted? Time ticks by, with her silent but pleading…and ultimately unheard. Bush is a vortex of creativity. Each song a story in it's own right. The second side of this album is worth yet another listen… and another… and another.
'Under Ice' from The Hounds Of Love
"My senses were now of a rather pleasurable cast, partaking of that dull, but contented sort of feeling which precedes the sleep produced by fatigue. Though the senses were... deadened, not so the mind." An essay on near-death experiences by Dutch psychologist Douwe Draaisma features this quote from Rear Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort of his experience of falling into the water in Portsmouth harbour in 1795. It appears to also describe the moment in 'The Ninth Wave' where 'Dream Of Sheep' gives way to 'Under Ice' - a track that only lasts two minutes and twenty one seconds, but that becomes dizzying if you contemplate it for too long. So Kate's drowning, and a scene from her past, possibly from childhood, of skating on a frozen river, enters her mind. The rising synth stabs and massed voices convey shifting masses of ice, sublime dread and impending danger. Draaisma explains that the withdrawal of external stimuli (a self-protective response but also exacerbated in cases of near-drowning) leads to this experience of "panoramic memory", a flood of images from the past. Beaufort's included "all my boyish pursuits and adventures..." He also writes of 19th-century survivor of a mountain fall, geologist Albert Heim, who saw "a performance in his own consciousness, the props and scenery of which came from his own memory." These scenes from the past are observed with pleasurable detachment but "if certain perceptions and ideas have to make way for consolation and reassurance because of their traumatic character, then somewhere in our mind the danger of these perceptions must nevertheless have been grasped. This 'somewhere' (is) the preconscious. It is aware of the threat, but tries to keep it out of consciousness..." Hence the premonition of future peril planted in the scene, trying to break through - "It's meeeee!" Heim said: "As though on a stage some distance from me. I saw myself as the chief character in the performance... both hero and onlooker, I was as though doubled." Drowning Kate in fact doubles then doubles back on herself, seeing herself skating seeing herself drowning. This is how you often find Kate in her best songs: doubled, "hero and onlooker", then doubled again.
'Hello Earth' - from Hounds Of Love
The general hubbub about Kate Bush's Before The Dawn show has centred upon her decision not to "play the hits." What of it? Wonderful as some of them are, there isn't a chart single in her oeuvre that deserves to displace a minute of The Ninth Wave, which she performs in its entirety.
If The Hounds Of Love LP is Bush's masterpiece, and you'd best believe it is, then its second, self-contained side is what confirms it as such. Our format demands picking songs, not suites. And I can't think of a Bush song that better encapsulates both her strangeness and her strengths than this one.
Ever the dramatist, Bush has from the off spent her career creating scenes. You might describe her great subject as the outside seen from the inside - that is, other lives, other worlds, depicted via her imagination as if from within. With this comes the risk, at times the reality, of excruciating artistic failure - am-dram episodes both leaden and twee. But without the courage to take that risk, she could never have created this sublime track, an out-of-body experience (as, in one way or another, are so many of her songs) in which her near-drowned protagonist sees the planet from afar.
It might easily be a power ballad. Voice, echo, piano, then crashing drums. But even then, its atmosphere (no, don't) is so rich - so, well, unearthly - that it sends you soaring and spinning into the orbit described by the song itself. Then the Georgian-style choral vocal bathes its second phase in impossible serenity. Is it a lullaby for the succumbing to the sea, and to death? "Go to sleep, little Earth."
Whoever saves one life, says the Talmud, saves the world entire. Does the passing of one life, then, consign the world entire to its final rest? Such is the depth and resonance of Hello Earth, one might, if not believe it, then strongly feel it.
'And Dream Of Sheep' from Hounds Of Love
The more time passes since I first heard Hounds Of Love in high school, the more visible the emotional underpinnings to the record become. At its heart, Hounds of Love is an album about compassion. Bush offers to trade places with someone suffering ('Running Up That Hill') and examines the way in which a murder finds solace ('Mother Stands For Comfort'). But then, 'And Dream Of Sheep' appears. It is a song that is tired of fighting, even when that fight is simply to love and offer empathy to others. It is a song about the loneliness that come after so much struggle, whether that struggle is witnessed or internal. And, maybe more than anything else, it is a prayer that those who show compassion will receive it as well: "Let me sleep. / Let me be weak. / And dream of sheep."
Erin Lyndal Martin
'Heads We're Dancing' from The Sensual World
Even by the standards of The Sensual World, Bush's wilful, heterodox sixth album, 'Heads We're Dancing' is undeniably daring. From anyone else, a vignette about an evening dancing, unknowing, with Hitler on the eve of the Second World War would be tasteless, overwrought. Instead, Bush provides us with a soft-focus nightmare seduction punctuated by sensory flashes: his voice in her ear as he steers her around the floor, the stark reveal of his photograph in the paper. The composition is astonishing, with a driving, percussive synth line disrupted by an errant Mick Karn bassline, microtonal strings, and Bush's broken vocal, alternately intimate and laden with horror. It's characteristic of her to approach big issues obliquely, and something about the way she discusses the effect of power and charisma here is genuinely hair-raising.
'Never Be Mine' from The Sensual World
Inspired by James Joyce's Ulysses and 'Jerusalem' by William Blake, The Sensual World album is a tapestry of passion, intellect and soul searching. 'Never Be Mine' is a thing of beauty which showcases Bush's amazing vocal range in its entirety, and has the ability to make the hairs at the nape of your neck stand up. The lyrics are heart wrenching, full of unrequited love and yearning, suited to my angst ridden fifteen-year-old self at the time, the song itself like a fire coloured painting with nature, love and lust intermingling. The album in general is one of her strongest, and bought teenage girls and boys of the 90s screaming into their own, individual, sexual awakenings.
'Lily' from The Red Shoes
Bush's sweet habit of including family members on her records seldom misfires: her father's Proustian snippets on 'The Fog', her son Bertie's wintry cameo on 'Snowflake', her brother's careful work on 'Jig Of Life'. With 'Lily', we are introduced to Bush's grandmother, who plays the role of Lily, a powerful crone, both on this track and in Bush's 1993 short film, The Line, The Cross and The Curve, which offers a fanciful rewrite of the Powell and Pressburger epic, The Red Shoes. The narrative is an odd mix of folk, pop-cultural and theosophical influences: Bush falls under the influence of an impish fairy who gifts her the curse of the red shoes, and is forced to seek instruction from Lily, a practitioner in the Regardiean mould who recommends a ritual summoning of angels for protection, the lesser pentagram. The netherworld in which Bush finds herself is analagous with David Lynch's work on Twin Peaks, with the use of mirrors and inversion here paralleled by the contrast between Bush's fearful vocal and the reassuring, commanding tone of her grandmother's voice. This invocation of feminine authority is unusual for Bush, whose female characters tend toward the fallible; but the track, and the tale, are all the stronger for it.
'Nocturn' from Aerial
The climax of Kate Bush's most gorgeous, enveloping album is a masterclass of build-and-release and secret lost balearic anthem. Having spent Aerial drifting through a beguiling dreamworld, 'Nocturn' is the vivid, electrifying wake-up call. Kate Bush goes about it patiently, though, stretching and elongating her words with exquisite phrasing as though savouring their taste on her lips; by contrast, it's the insistent, urgent bass strut behind her that hints at something explosive to come. Each time she lands on that deeply satisfying rhyme at the heart of the song - "We stand in the Atlantic / and we become panoramic" - brings another anticipatory surge of pleasure: it's as though Bush is spending the song searching for the key to unlock something as yet unknown. That unlikely key turns out to be a flamenco guitar, held back until the sixth minute, and suddenly the Kate who crooned so soothingly about the milky, silky water morphs into multi-tracked, incantatory Kates summoning up a force greater than herself. The climax of the song feels like being at the top of your head, shedding your skin, being reborn; as the last cry - "All the dreamers are waking!" - echoes, it feels as though not just the album but Kate Bush's entire career has been building towards this moment of transcendence. We're left hanging, breathless for a few seconds before plunging bodily into the frenzied rave-up of 'Aerial'.
'Aerial' from Aerial
Reading the fawning coverage of Kate Bush's return to the stage - including the first night's live Guardian blog written by two people who weren't even there - it's been hard to dismiss the sense that she's the Princess Diana of music. Anyone out of step with the prevailing belief that she's an immortal goddess who can do no wrong has been - rightly or wrongly, and I wasn't there - outnumbered and verbally bludgeoned. Like much of her recent work, Aerial (the album) was a reminder that she was fallible - Rolf Harris, anyone? Even before recent revelations? - but it still offered plenty of reminders as to why she's become the People's Princess, none more so than the closing quarter of an hour of its second disc, A Sky Of Honey. Following 'Nocturn''s dreamlike, quiet, almost funky atmospheres - something that at times recalled the delicate majesty of The Blue Nile at their finest - the album closed with something quintessentially Bush-esque, the album's title track. Its unexpectedly propulsive rhythm and simple, thumping bassline charged towards a madcap climax, Bush giggling deliriously - and, inevitably, somewhat theatrically - amid birdsong during an extended instrumental section before her husband, guitarist Dan McIntosh, let loose a squall of axe solos, the likes of which hadn't been heard since David Gilmour last toured. Providing a perfect example of how she manages to sidestep most critical arrows, her overwhelming, feverish and repeated delivery of the song's key, hypermanic lines - "I feel I want to be up on the roof/ I feel I gotta get up on the roof" - underlined how she's always worked outside of prevailing trends as an artist who's less 'out of date' and more 'in her own time zone'. This was Bush at her best: doing what we least expected, rocking out, playing the fool, squealing like an ecstatic banshee, reminding us that, fallible or not, she's never been less than fascinatingly unique. If she's pop's Queen Of Hearts, as it's recently seemed she might be, 'Aerial' definitely suggested she wasn't in any rush to abdicate.
'Among Angels' from 50 Words For Snow
She came back for the encore, alone, and sat behind her piano. That's when the weight of the night finally hit me. Pop shorthand still paints Kate Bush as a creature of wide, wild eyes and excess. She is much more about gentleness, thought, and small details.
'Among Angels' is about someone needing help, the people who will provide it, the all-too-human sound of slight fingers on ivory keys. All of us, Kate sings, are "in and out of doubt". On Tuesday, I was on my first night out, alone, without my baby. I felt lost and untethered, bobbing along on my own ninth wave.
"They will carry you over the walls", sang Kate, "If you need us, just call." It's not been an easy time.
'Among Angels' says something magical in its shy notes and discordant moments: that people are there. There are angels that surround me, "like mirrors, that shimmer like summer". I rest my "weary world in their hands", lay my "broken laugh at their feet". The music takes me to another place too, like a late Talk Talk song, quietly, effervescently. On Tuesday, that meant everything. Kate and I, for a moment, were alone, together.
'Misty' from 50 Words For Show
We have only one living pop star who could write convincingly about fucking a snowman. That is just the truth: no one else could do this, could birth a perfect new fairy tale, full of peril and desire, out of her music. 'Misty' begins with a reassuringly warm, festive piano figure that gradually gives way to larger and more uninhibited melodic passages, as the song's narrative progresses long past the point of reasonable suspension of disbelief. Bush's voice, mystically tender and wild, recounting in metonymic detail the snowman "melting in my hand", is all we need to take us there. In the aftermath, as Bush describes the devastated bed, soaking with meltwater and covered in leaves, as she searches for her dissolute lover in the snow swirling outside her window, her distress is palpable. It's a powerful evocation of the risk inherent in pure desire - the dangerous possibility that we might consume our lovers, consume our love, extinguish it, and be unable to bear it, that we might not return to the life before.
'Lake Tahoe' from 50 Words For Snow
Just as Benjamin Britten blended the voices of a tenor and a countertenor in his second canticle - singing together in perfect and still unison, they represented the voice of God advising Abraham to sacrifice his own son - fifty-nine years later Kate Bush scored Lake Tahoe for a tenor and a countertenor. Singing together they become the voice of a ghostly narrator. "Cold mountain water, don't ever swim there", they warn. Lake Tahoe is 1,645 feet deep. Lake Tahoe is filled with mosquito fish, bluegill, cutthroat trout, the bodies of Chinese railroad workers from the 1870s and a drowned Victorian woman still dressed in white satin. The dead don't float in Lake Tahoe, the cold preserves them. A thousand feet down their blue eyes are open but once a year they walk the shore. Kate Bush sees her Victorian woman searching for a dog. "Snowflake! Snowflake!" she calls out. Kate Bush becomes a Victorian woman. "Snowflake! Snowflake!" she sings out. Her dog is warm at home sleeping in the kitchen. Kate Bush's skin and hair are wet, her eyes blue, underneath her fingernails is Tahoe silt. We cannot save her. And the snow is falling - softly at first but soon in deep plodding flurries like the heavy walking chords of her piano as she climbs the keyboard out of Lake Tahoe. Quavers of snow crown the surrounding peaks, melting into the chilled water. Lake Tahoe doesn't freeze. You cannot walk across it, unless you are Snowflake running towards his ghostly mistress - ears flailing, curly white hair windswept behind him.