but she's a girl...

[Femina geekoides]


Appreciating Kate

With all the talk about the opening of Kate Bush’s first tour since 1979, I’ve had her music occupying my brain more than usual. I watched a fantastic documentary about her on BBC Four, which included a lot of clips of interviews (given that she gives so few interviews, it was probably most of them) and also performances of her music. Now, I listen to her music a lot. I always have. But when you see the entire history of her work, and listen to other people enthusing out her as well, it struck me all over again what an extraordinary artist she is. One of the things I found most interesting was that some very unlikely people are enormous Kate Bush fans. By ‘unlikely’, I mean musicians whose style is markedly different from her own, and who you would not have expected to have been influenced artistically by her work. To name a few, John Lydon (Sex Pistols, PiL), Tricky, and Big Boi (Outkast) are all big fans. I think that says a lot about how multi-layered her music is, if so many people with different musical tastes can find so much to enjoy in it. The early reviews of her live show ‘Before the Dawn’ suggest that it is – as expected – truly amazing, so I’m really sorry that I didn’t manage to get tickets. To console myself (and any fellow fans in the same position), I felt inspired to write (again) about the things I appreciate about her body of work.

The Kick Inside

I first acquired a copy of this album years ago when a friend made me a copy from a very scratched disk. I soon replaced it with a legitimate copy, but since I listened so much to the copy which had a stutter on ‘Saxophone’, I’ve heard it that way in my head ever since. It still surprises me when I listen to it and it doesn’t skip on that track. For a debut album, particularly from such a young woman, this is astonishingly mature work. There are the classic tracks like ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘The Man With The Child in His Eyes’, which are still amazing after all this time, but there are some other gems too. You can see why the record label wanted to release ‘James and the Cold Gun’ as the single from the album, because it is the most traditional and catchy of the tracks. I’m very fond of ‘Moving’, ‘Feel It’, ‘Oh To Be in Love’, and ‘L’Amour Looks Something Like You’, but ‘The Kick Inside and ‘Room For the Life’ are extraordinary songs for a young (and at the time, childless) woman to write. It’s an early indication that she is going to be superbly good at imagining incredibly vivid scenarios that are well outside of her personal experience. It’s a great album, and I still listen to much of it now.

Lionheart

I think this is a slightly more patchy album, but there are a few songs on it that I think are among her best. ‘Wow’ is a brilliant song, and the vocal gymnastics she goes through are great to listen to. I am also in love with ‘Oh England My Lionheart’. I’ve written about it before, but I can’t think of another artist who could write a song so packed with every cliché about England that you’ve ever come across, but end up with something that doesn’t sound as if it is a theme tune for a racist, fascist organisation. It is such a beautiful, melancholy song, and somehow makes me feel instantly homesick, even if I am at home. Perhaps it’s because it’s the version of England we secretly long for, but don’t have.

Our thumping hearts hold the ravens in / Keep The Tower from tumbling

I like ‘Don’t Push Your Foot on the Heartbrake’ because everyone needs a warning about not putting their blues where their shoes should be once in a while. ‘In the Warm Room’ is a dreamy wonder, and I’m very fond of the camp theatricality of ‘Coffee Homeground’ and ‘Hammer Horror’. As a whole, it’s a slightly uneven album, but you can feel her begin to flex her artistic muscles, which get their full workout in her next album.

Never for Ever

I love this album. I think that this is where she really started came into her own artistically, and it is the first album that has a consistent atmosphere (in this case, somewhat otherworldly and slightly sinister, all of which is reinforced by the terrific sleeve art). There are so many classics on this album, it’s hard to know where to start. ‘Babooshka’ still holds up well, and I think ‘Army Dreamers’ and ‘Breathing’ are among the best of her output. ‘Army Dreamers’ is such an incredible song. Not only does she put herself in the position of a grieving mother who has lost her son to war, but the layered sound effects sound fresh and cutting-edge even today. The song itself is a kind of light waltz with lilting vocals, but is punctuated by the sound of rifle bolts and a Sergeant Major yelling drill commands as percussion. It is so perfectly done that it doesn’t sound at all forced, but points up the contrast between the grieving of the mother with the hard, harsh world of a solider. ‘Breathing’ was the song that terrified me when I first heard it on my Walkman, doing my brother’s paper round for him. There are so many layers of meaning to this song, that you can interpret in many different ways, but all of the interpretations are apocalyptic. It’s a fantastic song, and can transport you into a very scary place indeed.

I could go on, because I love all the tracks on this album, but ‘Delius (Song of Summer)’ and ‘Night Scented Stock’ are also lovely little gems that I go back to often.

The Dreaming

I think this is an under-rated album, and probably my second favourite album after ‘The Hounds of Love’. I often think of this as quite an angry album for some reason. I can’t quite put my finger on why that is, but there are certainly a lot of songs about conflict and tension, and not getting what you want. Musically, I think that the whole album is extraordinary. There are so many layers of instruments, vocals and effects, but it never sounds muddy or overdone. I have listened to this album countless times, and I still hear new things in it, and marvel about how modern it feels. It’s hard to pick out favourites from this album, because I love them all.

Many of the songs illustrate the way that Kate can imagine her way inside other peoples’ lives to an incredible extent. For example, in ‘Pull Out The Pin’, she writes from the perspective of a Viet Cong guerilla in the Vietnam War, deciding whether to kill an American Solidier.

Just one thing in it, me or him / And I love life, so I pull out the pin

He’s big and pink and not like me / He sees no light / He sees no reason for the fighting

There are sound effects of cars passing close by, and a spine tingling end in which she sings ‘I love life’ repeatedly in a tortured, frantic voice, while the sound of choppers fills the background. The whole effect is stunning, and I really admire the way that she makes the protagonist a person, rather than a one-dimensional hero or a villain.

All The Love’ is a heartbreaker that I have to steel myself for, and the slippery ‘Suspended in Gaffa’ always feels like a feminist song to me:

She can’t have it all

I don’t know why I’m crying / Am I suspended in gaffa?

Similarly, ‘Get Out of My House’ feels to me like a woman trying to protect her own space (mentally, if not physically). I’ve found this song quite cathartic at times, and I enjoy bellowing along with the donkey brays towards the end.

The Hounds of Love

I suspect this album is the favourite of most people. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that it’s her masterpiece. There are plenty of individual tracks that are wonderful on later albums, but as a whole, this is an incredible piece of work. The individual tracks on the first half of the album are brilliant in their own right (particularly ‘Running up that Hill’ and the under-rated and deeply creepy ‘Mother Stands for Comfort’), and on a lesser album, these would be standout tracks. However, the second half, ‘The Ninth Wave’ is so brilliant that it eclipses the first half.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, the second half of the album is a kind of mini-film in musical form. The loose narrative is that a woman has been shipwrecked and is in the water, waiting for rescue. The tracks blend into one another, but are mostly quite dark in tone. It starts with ‘And Dream of Sheep’, in which our heroine is trying to keep herself awake, but is desperate to sleep, at which point she will slip quietly beneath the waves.

Let me be weak / Let me sleep / And dream of sleep

It’s a quiet song with piano accompanying the vocals, but it is embellished with all kinds of sounds (as are most of the tracks on The Ninth Wave) like radio traffic from NASA and sea-related sounds, which makes it very atmospheric.

That track transitions into ‘Under Ice’ with some sinister staccato strings. In this she imagines skating on a frozen lake and seeing something moving under the ice, which she realises is herself trying to escape. It’s a short track, but incredibly atmospheric with radar pings and thunder rumbles, and its odd, off-kilter rhythm. Then we get a voice, tender, close to our ears:

Wake up

And we move into ‘Waking the Witch’. Man, I love this song. It still amazes me every time I hear it, with the complexity of the layers of sound, and the demonic, accusatory voice. It is delightfully gothic and creepy, and meshes together folklore and the historical treatment of women suspected of witchcraft:

There’s a stone around my leg

I also think it is perhaps intended as a comment on the way in which women have been (and often still are) ignored, disbelieved, misunderstood and distrusted. Our heroine is trying to make herself understood, but in the way of nightmares, no-one is listening to her. At the end of the track, we hear a chopper and a voice on a loudhailer say:

Get out of the waves / Get out of the water

And we go into ‘Watching You Without Me’. In the narrative, I always interpret the two previous tracks as hallucinations or nightmares that the woman has as she drifts from wakefulness to sleep, and fights to stay awake. In this track, she imagines what her loved ones might be doing at home, watching the clock, worrying about her and wondering where she is, and she tries to speak to them, but again, her words are broken up and distorted, and she isn’t understood.

In ‘Jig of Life’, she gets a visit from her future self, urging her to hang on to life. As the title suggests, this song is a jig with a strong Irish rhythm and instrumentation driving it forward.

I put this moment… here.

The track ends suddenly and we hear NASA radio signals again in the back ground as we move into ‘Hello Earth’. I’ve written before about how much I love this song, and about the fact that it would be the one track I took into space if I ever got the chance to go. And I would cry like a baby listening to it and looking back at our beautiful blue marble.

With just one hand, held up high / I can blot you out of sight

In this track, our heroine imagines being out of her body, floating in space and looking down at the Earth rather than up at the sky. I think it’s a beautiful evocation of the beauty, fragility and vulnerability of our planet, and the kind of deep homesickness you might feel looking down on our planet. The choral interludes are a touch of genius, and turn the track into something very deep and contemplative.

Go to sleep, little Earth

At last, we sense that our heroine is about to be rescued, and ‘The Morning Fog’ has a much more upbeat feel. And that’s it, it’s all over far too soon. I don’t think I’ve really done this album justice, because it’s so hard to describe the atmosphere it creates without actually listening to it yourself. The production of the all the tracks is faultless, and it is a treat to listen to on headphones. She places voices and effects in the soundscape very carefully, so people whisper right in your ear, or appear to be far away, and choppers pass from one ear to the other. It’s an incredibly intense but also intimate experience.

The Sensual World

This album had a lot to live up to. As a complete work, I don’t think anything can top The Ninth Wave, but there are some absolutely brilliant tracks on this album, starting with the title track. ‘The Sensual World’ opens with a peal of church bells, and just gets better from there on. The story behind the track is that Kate wanted to use Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from James Joyce’s Ulysses for the lyrics, but was denied permission by Joyce’s estate. Instead, she wrote her own lyrics in the same style, and – in my opinion – did a brilliant job. Later, on ‘Director’s Cut’, she was finally given permission to use Molly Bloom’s words, and remade the track as ‘Flower of the Mountain’. I like both a lot, but having listened to both a lot, I think I actually prefer Kate’s unusual images and metaphors than Joyce’s. I suspect also that she chose her own words to fit how she would sing them, and for the sound of the words, which is very important in a lyric. For example:

To where the water and the earth caress / And the down on a peach says, “Mmh, yes”

I’ve always thought that the song was a kind of exhortation to get out of the world of fiction (‘step out of the page’) and really live in the world, experiencing everything. The more I listen to her music and hear the odd, rare interview with her, the more I think that she’s a book-loving introvert (a bit like me, but infinitely more talented, obviously!). I also have a tendency to bury myself in the page (or in coding) as a kind of protection against dealing with the world, which often seems too loud and too much, so I try to take this advice to ‘step out of the page’ seriously when I find myself getting too introverted. Also, her trilled and repeated “Mmmm yes” on this track is one of my favourite sounds ever.

Elsewhere on the album, Kate is still exercising her phenomenal imagination to – among other things – imagine what it might have been like to inadvertently dance with Hitler (‘Heads We’re Dancing’) or strap yourself to a firework rocket and shoot into the sky (the irresistible ‘Rocket’s Tail’). ‘This Woman’s Work’ is a complete weepie and a very sensitive and touching song about love and loss. I first heard ‘Never Be Mine’ just after a difficult break up, and it was one of those songs where the singer seems to have got inside your head and explained your own feelings to you to so precisely and articulately that it’s a bit startling.

The Red Shoes

Of all her albums, this is the one I listen to least, with the exception of a few tracks like ‘Moments of Pleasure’, ‘And So Is Love’, ‘The Red Shoes’, and ‘Song of Solomon’. Actually, that’s about a third of the album, which isn’t bad. I don’t hate the other tracks, but I think some of them sound a bit too much as if they are two completely separate songs welded together. On the previous three albums, her dense arrangements had been crisp and precise, but on The Red Shoes I think that it feels a bit muddy in places. I suspect she felt the same, because she remastered many of the tracks (my favourites, as it happens) on ‘Director’s Cut’.

Aerial

After a wait that felt as if it would never end1, we had ‘Aerial’, a double album. I wrote about it when it came out here, and my opinion hasn’t changed. It certainly stands the test of time, and I still listen to it with a great deal of pleasure, with the exception of the tracks with Rolf Harris on: given the revelations about him, that turns my stomach a bit and I have to skip over them. As I’ve mentioned, most of her albums have a distinct and cohesive atmosphere about them (dark, angry, gothic, or sensual) and the predominant tone of Aerial is one of warmth and sunlight. I still adore ‘Mrs. Bartolozzi’, and think that the tiny, perfect ‘Aerial Tal’ is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.

50 Words For Snow

Again, I’ve reviewed this album here, and don’t want to repeat myself. I have this album as a digital download and as a vinyl double album, and an evening spent listening to this album on vinyl with a glass of wine at hand is just about perfect. The critical reception for the album was a bit lukewarm, but I think it is every bit as good as much of her earlier work. Her voice has changed and deepened as she has got older and so she doesn’t go in for the same kinds of vocal gymnastics as she did on her her early albums, but even if she could, I’m not sure that she would. She seems to me to be more confident, quieter, and the tracks use silence in a careful and effective way. I think that she is every bit as creative and startling as an artist as she was on her very first album (let’s face it, who else can you imagine writing a song about a one night stand with a snowman?), but her style has matured and doesn’t need the theatricality and drama that characterised her earlier work.

And finally

I’ve loved immersing myself intensively in her music again this week. Writing this has reminded me the extent to which her work has formed a kind of soundtrack to most of my life. I love the work of a lot of different artists, but if I had to choose just one, I wouldn’t even have to think who that would be.

Which brings me to my hypothetical Desert Island Discs. Like many people who love music and like making lists of things, I’ve often thought about which 8 pieces of music I would choose to take to the Desert Island. It’s not as if I am ever going to be asked, but it’s a fun exercise for a geeky music fan. My problem, of course, is that I would have trouble choosing only 8 pieces of music by Kate Bush, let alone leaving room for other artists that I like. One potential loop-hole I considered is that I might be allowed to take the whole of the Ninth Wave, since it is effectively one continuous piece of music. However, Kirsty Young is a bit strict and I think she might veto that. So if I could only choose one track by Kate Bush, I think it would have to be one that I haven’t mentioned here, because it was a B-side: ‘Under the Ivy’. I have it on my version of The Hounds of Love2. This is a song that feels so personal to me that I feel very awkward talking about it. It feels a bit like showing you what’s inside my head. I’ll just say that Kate somehow captures exactly how I feel in social settings: an urgent need to escape somewhere quiet, but also a paradoxical longing for someone to understand this about me and come and find me.


  1. 12 years. 

  2. It was a special edition CD with some bonus tracks. 

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