Confession time: Until about a month ago, I hadn't been listening to much Kate Bush, and I'm not sure why. True, she hadn't put out a record in 12 years, and I tend to listen mostly to new releases, a hazard of the record-reviewing trade. But a quick inventory of my vinyl racks proves that I once was an ardent fan.
I still own all her previous albums except for her seventh, The Red Shoes, which came out in 1993 -- apparently the point at which my flame burned out. Consider it reignited. When I listen to the gorgeous singing, the you-say-dated-I-say-timeless production, and the general air of doomy ecstasy on Aerial, Bush's eighth CD, I remember what drew me to her in the first place.
She's an English rose tricked out like Kali, a demon draped in Laura Ashley florals. She is deeply, disturbingly feminine, with her painted-valentine face and her three-octave range and her sometimes regrettable fondness for modern dance and goofy costumes.
Depending on the demands of the song, she can sound like a cross between Betty Boop and Maria Callas, or John Cleese and Emily Bront, or James Joyce and Nina Simone. Her songs often are sexually charged, but she's escaped the sex-symbol trap that's been the ruin of so many of her female contemporaries.
If ever a rock musician approached what the French feminist-poststructuralist theorist Hlne Cixous called l'criture fminine, it's Bush; if ever a rock musician was less deserving of such lit-geek windbaggery, it's Bush. Hers is a sensual world, invulnerable to rhetoric.
Let the critics gape at their own dopey metaphors, parse her allusions, credit her with Fiona Apple, blame her for Tori Amos, acknowledge her as the reason that the freaky white women of the world are suffered to bang on pianos and invoke the elements. Whatever dumb words she coaxes from us, she won't be bound by them.
Aerial actually comprises two separately titled CDs, A Sea of Honey and A Sky of Honey.
The first disc, Sea, is a collection of character-driven songs, several of which are strong enough to stand as singles. In "Bertie," a mincing Renaissance madrigal replete with period instruments, Bush sings of her love for her son and somehow manages to pull off lines such as "You bring me so much joy / Then you bring me more joy" without sounding like a Lifetime movie.
"Pi," a song about a man who loves numbers, boasts a radiant aria composed entirely of decimal places. In "King of the Mountain," she celebrates Elvis Presley, Citizen Kane, and, unless I'm mistaken, King Lear; in "Joanni," she takes on Joan of Arc.
Sky is more impressionistic, a conceptual suite or song cycle that follows the course of a single day in which nothing and everything seems to happen (see Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway).
Birdsong plays against Bush's coloratura, mimics her stagey cackle; fretless bass burbles up through a thicket of beats; the piano chords break like the tide. The sound is numinous, irreducible, elemental, and, when Bush starts singing, "It was just so beautiful," over and over again, you just have to hear it, because, well, it is.
-- Ren Spencer Saller