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Date: 11/11/05

Sweet Sounds From The Bush

Kate Bush - "Aerial" (EMI 0946 3 43960 2 8)

Cover of Kate Bush's album 'Aerial'

I admit before I go any further that I'm a big fan of Kate Bush. I was fifteen when Wuthering Heights became a hit, and seeing a girl scarcely much older than myself dervishing about on Top Of The Pops in a diaphanous long white dress had a profound effect on me, not necessarily in the way she may have intended...

...So it was with some anticipation and anxiety that I slotted her new album Aerial into my CD player. Anticipation because this is her first album since 1993's The Red Shoes; anxiety because I couldn't help wondering whether it would truly be worth the wait.

As with her classic Hounds Of Love from twenty years ago, this album is subdivided into two sections. Unlike that previous effort, however, which was restricted by the vinyl format, she now has the room to stretch out each part to fill one disc each. This could, of course, be a recipe for trouble: nothing has quite undermined the reputation of so many artists in recent years than the apparent belief they have that, if a format allows you seventy minutes plus on a 'side', you are somehow obliged to fill it all.

Kate Bush nobly declines the temptation here. The first section, A Sea Of Honey doesn't reach forty minutes. It comprises seven songs, each of which stands alone in its own right. The single King Of The Mountain kicks it off with her doing a passable Elvis impression to a cod-reggae backing, complete with lyrics wondering about the nature of fame itself (something from which Bush has always tried to distance herself). Π is a fine mover of a track, and goes some way to proving a cliché: she isn't singing the telephone book, but she can make a string of digits sound lyrical. The third song, Bertie, is a tribute to her young son. This could have been dreadfully icky (indeed, some critics have claimed as much), but it is saved from falling into the boiling crater of that volcano known as Mt. Twee by virtue of a beguiling post-mediaeval arrangement and Kate's own absolute sincerity.

The domesticity which has been the heart of her life in recent years continues into Mrs Bartolozzi. This is a track which could easily have appeared on one of her early albums, featuring largely just Bush and her piano. The lyrics, too, would have fitted comfortably into her late-seventies output. Outwardly, they're about a woman doing her washing: beneath that, however, there is a tale of...what, exactly? Loss? Bereavement? There's certainly an element of an erotic sub-text in the way she describes her own clothes and those of her husband intertwining in the wash. Some unkind souls have sniffed at the little "slooshy sloshy" jingle towards the end, but I can't see Kate Bush worrying about that too much.

How she might be seen by others (particularly the more obsessive of her followers) is the subject of How To Be Invisible. Here she displays a waspishness in her lyrics which has rarely been witnessed before. A recent interview she gave the BBC indicates that she cannot understand the modern cult of celebrity, and rather than be part of it she has defiantly kept her distance.

Having covered down the years such notables as Brontë, Gurdjieff, Wilhelm Reich and Hitler, it may only have been a matter of time before Bush came to the subject of one of the most notable and determined women of history. Joanni is, in its style and arrangement remarkably like late-period Genesis, and the number moves along beautifully.

Disc one concludes with the almost dreamlike A Coral Room, where the image of a city underwater intermingles with memories of Kate's mother, who died around about the time of her last album. It concludes the side on a poignant note.

In the dreaded days of yore, the 'concept album' was de rigeur for all artists desperate to be taken seriously by people who couldn't possibly be taken seriously. We can be truly grateful that the compact disc hadn't been invented in time for the heyday of prog rock, as one can only imagine to what extremes the likes of Yes or ELP might have gone if they were able to put out a double album of nearly two and a half hours - only imagine, that is, in a cheese-induced nightmare.

Disc two is, I suppose, a 'concept album' in itself. The theme of A Sky Of Honey is the passage of time from an afternoon through to the dawn of the next day. Prelude starts with birdsong and young Bertie himself (and how one dearly hopes he won't regret his contributions to this album when he reaches adolescence), before moving forward into the afternoon, watching a street painter (played by the estimable Rolf Harris) at his work, before moving into the evening. Sunset is a pleasant, jazz-orientated song, which leads us into the brief interlude of Aerial Tal, in which Kate Bush imitates the melody of the song of a blackbird (one of the sweetest sounds in nature to these ears).

Some commentators have suggested that, because of the long gap since her last album and because of her way of working in isolation, Kate Bush has missed the mainstream trends in terms of sound and style on this album. If such things matter (she has always been an artist who has followed her own bent - this is one of the most attractive things about her music), then the next two tracks should dispel such daft notions. Somewhere In Between would not sound out of place on the better class of pop radio show today (assuming such shows exist), and its beguiling groove would be a perfect chill-out track. It leads in to Nocturn, the strongest part of this song cycle, and possibly the standout track of the whole album. A song ostensibly about lovers diving into the sea at night, there is (as one would expect) a far greater depth to its meaning than that. It is backed by music which has a driving momentum which recalls Running Up That Hill in terms of its power.

Unfortunately, for obvious thematic reasons, this momentum is lost in the closing (title) track which although a good one, sounds plodding and somewhat uninspired by comparison with the song before it. It also includes some rather hysterical laughing from Kate which I, for one, found quite disturbing. The whole album finishes on birdsong yet again - in our end is our beginning.

As a concept, A Sky Of Honey is far more coherent an entity than The Ninth Wave of 1985, and marks possibly Kate Bush's most complete and fulfilled creation. The production is simpler and less dense than before, and there is an overwhelming feeling of space and, yes, air. The album itself has been well worth the wait and, one hopes, worth the frustrations and difficulties Kate had in making it.