Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Kate Bush -- Aerial

A new review for Paste Magazine ...

Kate Bush
Columbia Records
4 Stars

Reclusive Pop Stars Returns with Lovely, Mysterious Odes to Domestic Bliss

For an industry obsessed with shameless self-promotion, rock ‘n roll certainly loves its hermits. From Brian Wilson to Syd Barrett, Bill Haley to Phil Spector, the music world is filled with former stars who have left it all behind and slammed the door, loudly and firmly, on fame and notoriety. And, truth be told, we delight in every furtive movement we can detect from the shadows.

Enter, quite belatedly, noted recluse Kate Bush, the pop thrush last heard on 1993’s The Red Shoes. In itself, the twelve-year absence is enough to warrant careful scrutiny. But when an artist is as eccentric and talented as Kate Bush, the speculation is bound to be juicy. Why the long absence? Maybe she was mad as a hatter. Or maybe she was dying, slowly and painfully. She was, it turns out, having babies and staying home to do the laundry. And on her new double album Aerial she provides ample evidence of why domestic life is rich with subtle meanings and strange pleasures.

The first CD, subtitled A Sea of Honey, is typical atypical Bush art pop, no song like any other, a heady mixture of gurgling synths and melancholy piano balladry, Renaissance lutes, violas, and harpsichords, and massive pop hooks supporting the most whimsical and esoteric subject matter imaginable. Album opener and first single “King of the Mountain” is by far the most conventional song here, if “conventional” can encompass an unsettling rumination on Elvis, Citizen Kane, and the claustrophobic cost of fame. But “Pi,”a gorgeous hymn-like tribute to, you guessed it, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, is as cockeyed as it sounds, and finds Kate lovingly singing the first twenty-five or thirty digits of everyone’s favorite infinite number. Then it gets stranger. The beautiful piano ballad “Mrs. Bartolozzi” is an ode to domestic bliss, specifically a washing machine. Never has a spin cycle sounded so erotic ("my blouse wrapping itself around your trousers”). And never has such an erotic song descended into such nursery rhyme tomfoolery ("Slooshy sloshy slooshy sloshy/Get that dirty shirty clean"). It’s lovely, bonkers, and an amazingly effective love song. And the cheerfully cracked housewife motif continues. On “How to Be Invisible” Kate addresses her extended absence and good-naturedly tweaks the rabid fanbase that delights in her Mad Witch persona: “Hem of anorak, stem of wallflower, hair of doormat," she sings, and domesticity never sounded so good or so enchanting.

The second CD, subtitled A Sky of Honey, is a 42-minute tone poem that owes as much to Ralph Vaughan Williams and birdsong as it does to pop and rock music. Loosely framed by assorted bird calls (some imitated by Kate over the course of the suite), Kate sings about an ordinary day by the English seashore. The sun rises, birds sing some more, Kate watches a seaside painter at work, watches the sun set, goes for a moonlight swim, and watches the sun rise again. Sweeping orchestral passages link the songs, synths wash in and out like the waves, and it’s all moody, contemplative bliss, a lovely, pastoral ode to the wonders of nature.

Not all of it works. On the otherwise lovely harpsichord madrigal “Bertie,” dedicated to her young son, Bush’s lyrics are so saccharinely puerile and cloying that the kid may want to sign up for counseling now and save himself some trouble in the future. The ode to the washing machine grates as well as delights. And the idea of Kate Bush imitating birdsong, in all its lilting, trilling, and cawing varieties, is, at best, a mixed blessing.

But she is who she is, a true original, making music that is audaciously unconventional, willfully iconoclastic, and weirdly beautiful. It’s great to have her back – alive, well, and not altogether right in the head.


Jeff Cannell said...


Generation X is looking to you to navigate us through a see of irrelevant crap music to find gems like this.

I'm ordering it off right now...

Or I might wait for used Kids this weekend.

teddy dellesky said...

I just can't "get" this album...maybe a few more listens will do it.

Andy Whitman said...

Teddy, I give her a lot of style points for weirdness. Anybody who writes songs about Pi and doing the laundry has got to be a little whack. Which is okay.

She's really not doing much different than she's ever done. Musically, "Aerial" isn't a big departure from 1982's "The Dreaming" or 1985's "Houds of Love." She's stuck in her own mid-'80s art rock timewarp. But since nobody else is doing mid-'80s art rock these days, I find her pretty refreshing.