Kate for every occasion
If we’ve talked at any point in the past four or so years, I may have mentioned my undying affection for the inimitable Kate Bush. This isn’t a best of list, simply my all-time favourite Kate songs as of November ‘15. I’ve selected two tracks from each album.
The Kick Inside
Kate had already written many, many songs by the time she came to putting together this album, so we get a ‘best-of’ selection of her early works. She wrote The Man with the Child in his Eyes when she was just 13.
James and the Cold Gun — One of her earliest hits, this was regularly played when Kate first started out performing in pubs as part of the KT Bush Band. I’d also recommend listening to the version that is available on On Stage as well — it includes an extended guitar solo and drum rolls synchronised to Kate gunning down men on stage. Great stuff.
The Saxophone Song — This was recorded a few years before most of the tracks on The Kick Inside, when Kate was 16 — I love the saxophone part, and her voice is ethereal and hypnotic. The song slowly fades into a soundscape that ties together much of The Kick Inside.
Lionheart is considered by many to be one of Kate’s weakest albums, rushed to market as a result of pressure from EMI. Released just eight months after The Kick Inside, it feels very similar tonally and has a few less remarkable songs on it.
Symphony in Blue — The lyrics are straightforward and honest, and the relaxed feel of the song makes for very pleasant listening.
Don’t Push Your Foot on the Heartbrake — I love the way this song ramps up — the enthusiastic brass, and the increasingly unhinged vocal performance. I still don’t know what the title means.
Never For Ever
Never For Ever is the first album on which Kate experiments with the Fairlight synthesiser. The Fairlight fundamentally changed the music production landscape, and the way Kate created her music. Like The Kick Inside, this is a consistently great album.
Babooshka — There’s a surprising amount of things going on in this song. It’s richly textured, and despite being heavily synthesised it still feels quite organic. Provocative and alluring.
Breathing — I’ve chosen Breathing over much catchier works like Violin and The Wedding List, because it demonstrates Kate’s incredible range and ability to craft an entire world within one song. Breathing is sung from the perspective of a foetus, fearful of a nuclear war outside. The repetition of “out, in, out, in” is laboured and we share her pain. The finale is just incredible, featuring a men’s choir and Kate absolutely roaring “let me breathe”!
I adore this album. It’s a highly experimental project that really pushed the limitations of the technology at the time. Kate’s voice is at times relegated to the background, taking a back seat to the strange cacophony of textures and sounds. Considered by many to be the album on which she finally loses the plot, I think it occupies an important place in her career. The Dreaming is a necessary journey that eventually leads us to Hounds of Love.
Night of the Swallow — One of the most Irish-sounding of her songs, it features a stunning uilleann pipes lead and fiddle. You feel as if you’re chasing a swallow as it swoops up and down — though apparently the song is about a smuggler. Who’s to say? I love the build-up in this song, and it has a fantastic and energised final verse. It feels very other-wordly.
Sat in Your Lap — This is a fun one. Allegedly written shortly after Kate attended a Stevie Wonder concert, it’s got an incredible energy to it. The percussive elements are particularly strong, and the lyrics convey an existential crisis and quest for knowledge — “I want to be a lawyer. I want to be a scholar. But I really can’t be bothered. Ooh, just gimme it quick, gimme it, gimme gimme gimme gimme!”
Hounds of Love
Everyone should sit down and listen to this album in its entirety. You will feel something. It’s confusing, frightening, bold, rich and immense. The album begins traditionally enough, with a number of great songs — Running Up That Hill, Hounds of Love, The Big Sky, and so on. But Hounds of Love is in two parts, and the second, The Ninth Wave, is a standalone concept album. An incredible narrative about a woman lost at sea, The Ninth Wave crashes over you like the waves in the Tennyson poem that inspires it — “Wave after wave, each mightier than the last / Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep”. Hounds of Love is probably Kate’s most complete work.
Hounds of Love — I absolutely adore this title track, I think it’s such a powerful song. Her performance is confident and dignified, and if I had to pick one song to perform at karaoke, this would be it.
Hello Earth — I realise that this song doesn’t make a great deal of sense without the context of the rest of The Ninth Wave, so I wouldn’t recommend listening to it by itself. It brings together all the elements of the album into one final, tremendously rewarding sequence. You feel as if all the musical loose ends are being tied up, with careful nods to Hounds of Love, Cloudbusting, and more. It features some of her most stunning vocal work, as well as some of my favourite lyrics — “I get out of my car, and step into the night, and look up at the sky, and there’s something bright, travelling fast”. The words are simple enough, yet the picture they paint is so strong. Not to leave the listener on too sombre a note, she quickly cuts to The Morning Fog, the perfect credit song to close out The Ninth Wave. The album ends and you feel as if you’ve come out of a spell.
The Sensual World
There’s a great sense of maturity to this album. Where Hounds of Love is big, bombastic and passionate, The Sensual World is a little more measured. The lyrics are some of her most intricate — the title track, for instance, is based around Molly Blum’s famous soliloquy from Ulysses — and there’s an incredible sense of femininity that underscores the album.
This Woman’s Work — Utterly heart-wrenching. Originally written for the film She’s Having a Baby, it fits perfectly in the context of The Sensual World. Simply hearing Kate singing at the piano, as in this song, is a treat. It’s hard to pull out a few exemplary lyrics here — best to be appreciated in its entirety.
Walk Straight Down the Middle — Nothing too insightful to say about this song — I just like the sound. As the final track on the album (and directly following This Woman’s Work), it can seem like somewhat of an afterthought. Kate herself doesn’t seem to think much of it: “I think it’s all right, some nice sounds, nothing special.” I disagree!
The Red Shoes
Hard to know what to make of this album. There’s no consistent feel and it’s quite unlike Kate’s other work — there are a lot of different flavours here, and Kate never fully commits to one. Some of these tracks are the closest Kate gets to traditional pop music.
Constellation of the Heart – Not what you’d normally associate with Kate. A 70s disco track, grooving along with a funky bass line. The lyrics don’t make much sense, either — “we take all the telescopes, and we turn them inside out, and we point them away from the big sky”. Okay?
Rubberband Girl – This song is also a lot of fun. It doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously, and I enjoy Kate’s attempts at imitating a rubber band – “Rub-a-dub-a-dub-a-dub”!
Released 12 years after her last album, The Red Shoes, Aerial can at times feel like the work of a different artist. Kate is now a mother. Her work is far more reflective. We hear the musings of someone who has lived a somewhat normal life — Mrs. Bartolozzi is a song about clothes going around and around in a washing machine, Bertie is a simple ode to her son.
King of the Mountain — Kate put down a demo vocal track for this song in 1995, and the final song didn’t emerge until 2005. I think the drums, in particular, are a highlight, and the production is very tight. This song was also one of the highlights of the Before the Dawn concert for me, particular as the song escalates — “the wind it blows, through the house, there’s a storm rising!” Stellar stuff.
An Endless Sky of Honey — It may be cheating to call this one track, but in all digital re-releases of Aerial this second CD is available as a single 42 minute long track. A lot of parallels can be drawn between this and The Ninth Wave, though Sky of Honey is much more abstract, transitory and hopeful. This is some of Kate’s best work, as she uses the call of a blackbird to inspire melodies, crafting an intricate and intensely detailed narrative about the passing of time, the innocence of childhood, the beauty of the natural world, art, sky, sunlight, dusk, nightfall. Finally, the frantic chants of “I’ve gotta be up on the roof!” bring the work to a thrilling conclusion, as powerful as anything on Hounds of Love. The instrumentation on this track, and indeed the whole album, is diverse, organic and crisply produced. Sky of Honey, more than any of Kate’s work, brings me to tears. Absolutely sublime.
Director’s Cut is a reworking of tracks from The Red Shoes and The Sensual World — retaining some of the original performances/elements but with new vocals and a new key: each song is lowered one tone to match Kate’s more mature voice. I think the re-workings are distinctive enough to be considered separately to the original songs, though I do believe that the two tracks highlighted below are far superior in this form:
Lily — This is my single favourite Kate Bush song. It has everything I love about Kate. Captivating lyrics, great instrumentation and an incredible vocal performance. It has the wildness and energy of her earlier work and also the maturity and depth of her newer material. It becomes quite wild towards the end, with a manic and furious energy — I just wish it was longer.
Top of the City — This is a stunningly beautiful song. It’s quite desolate, dramatic and surrounds the listener. When I’m feeling lost or overwhelmed, this song is helpful — it indulges those feelings but never makes you feel that they’re insurmountable. There’s a glimmer of hope to this song. It’s also very soulful, feeling at once incredibly immense yet intimate and fragile. There’s a quality to it I haven’t quite articulated — you’ll just have to have a listen.
50 Words for Snow
Another one to be listened to in its entirety. Most of the album is Kate singing at the piano — the work is intimate and intoxicating. The songs are all linked conceptually to winter and snow, yet also deal with love, relationships and spirituality.
Misty — At 13 minutes in length, this is the longest track on the album. Steve Gadd’s tight drum work lends a Dave Brubeck-style to the track, as it dips in and out of Kate’s spellbinding narrative. The song is about making love with a snowman, but waking up in the morning to find “the sheets are soaking” and “dead leaves on my pillow” — Misty has melted. It sounds perverse but it is utterly devastating.
Wild Man — The only track on the album suitable to be played in isolation, Wild Man is a song about the Yeti — because who’s to say that he isn’t real? The layering of Kate’s voice, with accompanying vocals by Andy Fairweather Low, lend a mystical and alien feel to this wonderful piece.
Well, those are my favourite Kate Bush songs. I dip in and out of all of her albums but overall tend to favour her more recent works. There is a wisdom and strength there that enchants me.
I think Björk expresses this nicely:
“I was listening to the last song (Among Angels) on the last Kate Bush album (50 Words for Snow) and I just started crying. I couldn’t work it out — if it was from joy or sadness or both. I knew she would never have written that song when she was, like, 30. It was coarse and there was some wisdom there that you only acquire later in life.”
It takes a great amount of time for Kate to create her music. And in turn, as a listener, I take the time to appreciate and understand her work. I’ve heard these songs hundreds and hundreds of times over, but I gain a new understanding of them as I go through my life. Kate’s music is not for everybody, but I think anyone can admire the intellect, patience, finesse and talent of this extraordinary artist. There’s nobody else quite like Kate Bush.