Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Top 100 Albums - #78: Aerial (2005)

Kate Bush finally makes an appearance on the chart with her most recent, comeback effort, Aerial, released after a 12-year hiatus from the music industry.From the release of her debut single 'Wuthering Heights' in 1978, Kate Bush had wowed and bemused audiences alike with her mystical appearance, idiosyncratic lyrics and eclectic sounds. But after the release of The Red Shoes (1993), Bush vanished from the music scene, refusing to tour, give interviews or appear in public for the press. She earned herself an unjustified reputation as a recluse, being compared to Greta Garbo and Miss Havisham¹, when in fact she was only trying to raise her children like an ordinary mother. After numerous press reports of new material, mental illness and weight gain over the years, she announced the release of her new double album, creating a wave of publicity and making it the most eagerly anticipated record of the year.

Which brings us to Aerial itself. Like Hounds Of Love (1985), this is really two albums - the first is subtitled 'A Sea Of Honey', the second 'A Sky Of Honey'. 'A Sea Of Honey' is opened by 'King Of The Mountain', a song about Elvis Presley, Citizen Kane and the excesses that come with being famous. The opening sets the mystical scene with some interesting rhythms before Bush comes in. Although it is immediately clear that her voice has not deteriorated (thankfully), she is at time a little hard to understand. Nevertheless, it doesn't appear to matter - either because you're just glad to hear her again, or more likely because this a great example of Bush's musical and arranging skills. It's a fine piece on its own - making it a good choice for a single - and a good opener.

Having eased you in, we now begin to see the weirder side of Bush, back with a vengeance. 'Pi' is again a textured piece musically, but considering the subject matter - reciting pi - this feels overproduced and rather self-indulgent. Had this been more minimalist, or darker, à la Radiohead, this would have been a great deal more compelling. 'Bertie' is a Renaissance ode to her young son, whom she gave birth to in 1998. Bush can get away with lines such as Here comes the sunshine/ Here comes this son of mine, which though they don't sound trashy or out of place are still not quite of the quality fans have yearned for. Otherwise this is a rather indifferent effort - it's not lazy, far from it, but it's also a rather hard listen for the casual explorer.

'Mrs. Bartalozzi' is more toned down, and features some beautiful piano at the beginning. And yet, this seems a little half-hearted from Bush. Although her delivery is as ethereally mysterious as always, she chooses to expound it on a series of subjects - in this case laundry - which don't really justify it, which could have easily been passed off by a lesser vocalist. In other words, as good as this song is, you would not have thought that this was a song Bush had written for herself, because it just doesn't justify her abilities.

Things pick up however with 'How To Be Invisible'. Again, the intro to the song serves as a hook while being wonderfully ornate and mysterious. Bush again lets the music do the talking while she serves up more lyrics which would take an expert to unravel. Although it is clear that this is to do with her retreat from the limelight, the rest is more ambitious - it is anyone's guess as to the meaning of lines like Is that the wind from the desert storm?/ Is that an autumn leaf falling?/ Or is that you walking home?. Nevertheless, this is a much more solid effort from Bush.

'Joanni' begins with a more industrial, space rock feel before a string section breaks the metallic awe of the drums. But while the 'background music' is very atmospheric, it is all in vain because Bush here sounds inane from the moment she opens her mouth. Not only are the lyrics rambling and incomprehensible, but the verses have even less structure than you would expect. 'A Coral Room', the final song on 'A Sea Of Honey', is a whole heap better, because things are stripped back to just a piano forcing Bush to focus. And it works. This is a beautiful number which slowly unwinds as you lie back and become absorbed by her relaxing tones.

'A Sky Of Honey' opens with the extraordinary 'Prelude'. Using pipes and some wondrous recordings of birdsong, this is the perfect combination of musique concrète with some sensitive piano and sparse vocals (spoken by an uncredited child, probably Bertie). Although this is very short, it segues into 'Prologue' which continues this emotive peak of creativity. This is a perfect track for midsummer, with Bush at her most ethereal when it comes to delivery. And the best part is, as with a lot of the album you don't need to pay attention obsessively to the lyrics, because, like Iona, they are part of a greater soundscape which blend and merge seamlessly with the music itself.

'An Architect's Dream' surprises you at first, as you hear the unexpected voice of Rolf Harris, who also plays didgeridoo on the album. Before long, some lovely percussion kicks in courtesy of maestro Bosco D'Oliveira. Accompanied by more wonderful strings, Bush glides along some more indecipherable syllables without a care since the production is so lush and the groove so soothing that the listener is unpertrubed. The same cannot really be said for 'The Painter's Link', for although this is musically superb, the presence of a male voice - Lol Creme's - ruins things, especially since he is an indie singer and has such deliberately cannot sing.

'Sunset' quickly pushes this flaw under the rug with a delivery and structure which recalls 'Wuthering Heights' in several places. The way she sings A sea-ee-ee of honey/ A sky-ey-ey of honey is really rather intriguing. The lyrics are beautiful and mystical, almost psychedelic in an innocent kind of way: For those who wrote the song of summer/ That blackbirds sing at dusk/ This is a song of colour sounds like a line right out of the late-1960s. The song concludes with a speeded-up section in which Bush suffers a little, but it still sounds very reasonable.

'Aerial Tal' is the shortest track on the album, clocking in at only 1:01. It features more wonderful birdsong, probably from a blackbird which inspired the cover - the photograph is not of islands reflected in water, but of a sound wave or voice pattern produced by a blackbird. The bad news is that Bush attempts to impersonate it over the top of the actual bird - and it sounds awful.

'Something In Between' is the best track on the album, because it combines the eclectic and syncopated rhythms of the earlier songs and the string and orchestral work of the later works in the perfect balance. Bush gives herself plenty of room, which means that lines like This is where the shadows come to play/ 'Twixt the day and night/ Dancing and skipping/ Along a chink of light are given the space necessary to make their impact complete. This is even more the case with the superlative chorus.

'Nocturn', clocking in at an epic 8:34, is, as the name suggests, slower and more subdued in tempo. We get the first sights or tastes of a song cycle which we weren't aware of before, in that this features vignettes of lyrics from previous songs. This is a wonderfully soothing song which chills you out so much that you will never want to move again, remaining in the same time and place for as long as possible. To be crueler, this is a good song to go to sleep too - but in a good way. The closer, the title track, begins with some wonderful string riffs faded in and out before Bush reaches a psychedelic peak. She then transmutes into a rock siren, as backed by aggressive hi-hat and electric guitar she screams and croons out her lyrics with brio. And soon, we are treated to more delightful birdsong, albeit overlaid with her rather creepy laughter.

For non-cultists, Aerial will prove a very difficult record to get into. It is even more difficult when your knowledge or experience of Kate does not extend much beyond her adventures into pop like 'Wuthering Heights' and 'Running Up That Hill'. For this resembles neither the creepy screeching on The Kick Inside nor the eclectic pop rock of Hounds Of Love. And yet this is not an album to be idly shoved to one side and allowed to gather dust after a single listen. At its peaks - and there are many - Bush's talents as a singer and composer are evident, and the symphonic quality of the record plays to her advantage, both as a reference to her literary inspirations (not just Brontë, mind), but also giving her an operatic quality. The main flaw with Aerial, though, is that it is way too long. It would have made more sense to release 'A Sky Of Honey', which is more consistent and conceptual, and then tweak the first album as a follow-up. The fact that she has chosen not to is still another thing that sets Bush apart as a maverick. It's where she belongs, and from the looks of things, it works very well for her.

3.75 out of 5

¹ Patrick Barkham, 'Guardian profile: Kate Bush', The Guardian, September 30 2005 - available at http://arts.guardian.co.uk/features/story/0,,1581815,00.html. Accessed on August 1 2007.

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