Artist Spotlight: Kate Bush

Kate Bush released her debut, The Kick Inside, as a 19 year-old. This always amazes me for a lot of reasons – most obviously, just wow, really? 19? It’s a totally self-assured in performance and conception for someone so young.

Bush has one of of those voices that’s as idiosyncratic as it is powerful and she could easily be self-conscious about unleashing the whole range of her vocalizations. She could have had some industry hack write some safe pop songs for her and she still would have stood a good chance of pop stardom as a teenager.

The thing is, Bush saw herself as an artist first from the beginning (from before the beginning, really, she had already been songwriting and performing for years before her debut). She was always going to sing her songs on her own terms.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t some room for growth. “Wuthering Heights” is a lovely, catchy tune featuring some range-busting vocal work, but something about it has always seemed a little precious. Bush is still learning to wield her instrument.

Bush’s followup, Lionheart, was reportedly rushed out to capitalize on the sensation that The Kick Inside caused. Bush herself wasn’t completely happy with it. She sums it up best in her own words: “Considering how quickly we made it it’s a bloody good album, but I’m not really happy with it.”

It’s composed mainly of previously written material that didn’t make it on TKI, some of it for presumably good reason. There’s still a lot to recommend it. “Hammer Horror” is a just plain fun tribute to the British Horror series. “Kashka From Baghdad” is a wonderfully moody song that I was glad to rediscover on re-listen.

I just can’t help but get the impression when I listen to her first two albums that Kate Bush isn’t Kate Bush yet. Some of that has surely to do with the fact that she hadn’t produced them, as she would beginning with Never For Ever.

Besides having an album cover that’s just f*cking metal in the best possible way, Bush really begins to explore the pop landscape. “Delius” is an experimental, ethereal delight. Bush’s recreation of the titular composer (it’s worth looking him up for historical context) tonelessly dictating to his assistant is one of those details that probably wouldn’t have made it on earlier albums, but it makes the song.

Self-producing means self-editing, which can be a bane for some artists. Bush, I think, manages to find the right line of indulging her instincts as an artist without over-indulging.

I don’t want to go crazy linking a bunch of videos, but this is a loaded album and it’s the first where Bush really seems to find her “classic” sound. Ok, just one more, “Babooshka,” her blistering take on the same premise as that terrible “pina colada” song:

Maybe now is a good time to bring up Bush’s visual aesthetic. Dance isn’t really something I pay attention to, mostly out of my ignorance of it as an art form, but it’s impossible not to notice the way she moves. In pop tradition, choreography tends to have a pretty specific purpose that isn’t entirely concerned with its artistic merits. For Kate Bush, choreography is about storytelling and mood, and if I knew better I would say she was a pioneer in this respect.

I’d never seen any of her videos before youtube came along (unless you count “Don’t Give Up,” which video made its way even to my non-MTV household), which meant I tragically missed “Suspended In Gaffa,” off of her fourth Album, The Dreaming. Even for someone who generally doesn’t “get” performance art, there’s something about her performance here that I find deeply affecting. I’d listened to this song probably hundreds of times before seeing the video, and as much as I love it, the idea of Gaffa became kind of a personal in-joke for me. What the hell even is Gaffa? Turns out it’s gaffer tape, but I like the idea of it as the mystical, unknowable prison that Bush inhabits with marionette confusion in her video.

I worry that if I call The Dreaming a challenging album it will come off like I mean, “it’s challenging to like it.” Which I emphatically don’t. I mean that it challenges pop conventions – a recurring theme in her career, but I don’t know if she’s ever been so ebulliently experimental in her work.

It’s occurring to me now that Bush had a really unusual career trajectory. She had already been a star in the UK for most of a decade by the time she released Hounds Of Love. Not many artists have enough in tank after 4 albums to produce a pop monster like Hounds.

There’s a breathless urgency to the title track – and to nearly the entire album, really. This is Kate Bush at her most forceful. It honestly still blows my hair back and leaves me a little exhausted listening to this whole album. Linking clips doesn’t do it justice. Writing about it doesn’t do it justice (at least I can’t). You really just have to listen to the whole thing. It’s a master exhibition of an artist exerting her will. I guess you could say it’s spell-binding.

Kate Bush is one of those artists who isn’t just a great talent, but an important figure in music history. I haven’t really talked about her impact and legacy as a female artist, because I’m not really the right person to do it, but I do want to at least have mentioned that she changed the landscape of what women were supposed to be as pop stars. On a side note: Bush is frequently pitted against Madonna which, besides being really unfair to Madonna :), just doesn’t make a lot of sense. They’re completely different artists trying to do completely different things.

The Sensual World is a mellower album, but no less powerful for it. This has always been one of my favorite “cool-down” albums. The title track is lush and, well, sensuous. It’s a perfect bookend to Hounds’ furious energy. Motherhood is a recurring theme in Bush’s music, and I can’t help but think there’s something nurturing about this whole album. Whatever wounds Hounds opens up for me, The Sensual World is there to salve them.

Ok, confession time: The Red Shoes is a fine album, but it doesn’t quite connect for me. The thing about concept albums is I think you have to connect with the concept. So if you’ve read this far and you love the album, please leave a comment about how awesome it is!

Because I’m hopelessly out of the loop, I didn’t discover Bush’s comeback double-album, Aerial until about 5 years ago. It was like she had never stopped making music.

It’s as strong as anything from her “peak,” and another step in her continuing evolution as a musician. I should dispense with the “double-album” label. It’s two albums. Part 1 is Kate Bush writing some great Kate Bush songs. Part 2 is really one long songwriting exercise in mood, and I’m just linking the whole thing because it’s all really beautiful.

Confession time, part 2: I still haven’t given her last album of original material enough listening to really say much about it. It hasn’t grabbed me like Aerial did, but I’m giving it time to grow on me.

So that’s enough of me. Thanks for reading/listening! I know I neglected just a ton in this remarkable artists’ career, so please fill in the blanks in the comments.