Originally published March 26, 2014
Only David Bowie could’ve matched the spell Kate Bush cast when she announced her first live dates in 35 years, and even he might have found it a stretch. Bush is elusive, a so-called recluse because she doesn’t play the game. Even when she pops up every few years with another album of spectral beauty, commonplace themes bumping up against strange magic, clothes mingling erotically in a washing machine, she doesn’t hard-nose the promo highway. Just to catch a glimpse of her is to spy a kind of mythical creature.
Maybe she plays up to this, or maybe the legend grows through inaction. Or maybe the music, when it turns up, is enough. Of course it is – nearly everything she does feels like it’s without precedent. Artists are only compared to her, not her to them. Each album adds or strips a layer of mystery, and to say which is better, which is best, to put them into qualitative order is a hopeless task. Off we go then.
10. Lionheart (1978)
That difficult second album cropped up fast, within nine months of Bush’s debut. ‘Lionheart’ isn’t a failure, but it’s got nothing with the character of ‘Wuthering Heights’ or ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes’ – and that’s the creaking old syndrome. Bush poured everything she’d written in her first 19 years into ‘The Kick Inside’, but as she said in 1984, by the time the second one came around “time pressures prevented me from writing more fresh material”. Still, her voice is as bewitching and seductive as it was on her debut, luvvie satire ‘Wow’ has a big pop grandeur and ‘Oh England My Lionheart’ invents Tori Amos, whether you wanted it to or not.
9. The Red Shoes (1993)
The worst you can say about ‘The Red Shoes’ is it’s, by and large, normal. ‘Rubberband Girl’ could be a decent Shakespears Sister song or something, and ‘Eat The Music’ is the acceptable face of cod reggae. Perhaps, only three years after ‘The Sensual World’, it was just rushed, or perhaps, as Bush suggested in 2011, she was “trying too hard”. There’s certainly one transcendent shaft of light in ‘Moments Of Pleasure’, but Bush’s own dissatisfaction with the record was part of the impetus for the second stab at some of it on ‘Director’s Cut’. Her mother died during the making of ‘The Red Shoes’ too, which can’t have helped her focus on an album that was meant to form the basis of a new live show. A missed opportunity all round.
8. Director’s Cut (2011)
As a first album in more than half a decade, ‘Director’s Cut’, with its reworks of tracks from ‘The Sensual World’ and ‘The Red Shoes’, might have been a mild disappointment if it wasn’t for the loving care that so clearly went into it. ‘Flower Of The Mountain’ (‘The Sensual World’ with its lyric finally taken from James Joyce’s Ulysses), a jazzy, tingling ‘This Woman’s Work’ that’d be at home on ‘Never For Ever’, and a totally unexpected Stonesy retelling of ‘Rubberband Girl’, with Bush drawling like the rawker we never knew she was – each re-version was a quiet revelation.
7. The Kick Inside (1978)
It’s a stupendously accomplished debut, especially for a 19-year-old who was years younger when she started writing the songs. There was a leg-up from Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour, who pulled a few strings to actually get the record made, but this is Bush’s work and it sparkles, from revelatory first single ‘Wuthering Heights’ – the song that launched a million Bush impressions – to exploratory skank ‘Them Heavy People’. “I was lucky to be able to express myself as much as I did,” she said later that year, but still wanted more. “I would like to learn enough of the technical side of things to be able to produce my own stuff eventually.”
6. 50 Words For Snow (2011)
Two albums in 1978, two in 2011 – those are the bookends, so far at least. Bush hasn’t been quite so prolific in between of course, but her creative renaissance proves the spark is undimmed. ’50 Words For Snow’ is a concept album – she’s had a bit of prog in her since the very start – and has an otherworldly ambience, a mood that’s not even broken by Stephen Fry wrapping his tongue lustily around all those snowy words. One of Bush’s earliest inspirations, Elton John turns up on love-song-across-the-years ‘Snowed In At Wheeler Street’ to complete a circle.
5. Never For Ever (1980)
“As soon as I met the Fairlight,” Bush admitted in 1985 about the digital sampling synthesiser, “I realised that it was something I really couldn’t do without because it was just so integral to what I wanted to do with my music.” The possibilities are obvious on ‘Never For Ever’, the most lush of her albums to that point, where dreamy Minnie Riperton soul (‘Blow Away’) meets berserk vamping rock (‘Babooshka’). Its finest moment is the haunting ‘Breathing’ with Bush facing up to the burgeoning nuclear crisis as weapons move into Greenham Common. “What are we going to do/We are all going to die” is as direct as she ever gets, and has all the more grim power for that.
4. The Dreaming (1982)
This was where Bush started to take complete creative control, and the results were – well – pretty short on hit singles anyway. Feral, philosophical opener ‘Sat In Your Lap’ grazed the top 10, but the panting title track, the courtly ‘Suspended In Gaffa’ and the insane, corblimey caper ‘There Goes A Tenner’ did nothing. It’d get more unhinged with the donkey brays on ‘Get Out Of My House’ as Bush revelled in her freedom, sealing a reputation as a wild-eyed genius kook even as she gave her career a near-mortal clout. She would take a few years to regroup, commercially anyway, but ‘The Dreaming’ is about adventure beyond borders.
3. The Sensual World (1989)
Only Kate Bush would make an album boasting a song – ‘Heads We’re Dancing’ – about dancing, or not, with Hitler, but ‘The Sensual World’ stands out for more wholesome reasons. There’s the oozing title track with Bush playing the orgasmic Molly Bloom from Ulysses (but without permission, at this stage, to actually quote the book), the soaring, skittering and plain anthemic ‘Love And Anger’, and of course ‘This Woman’s Work’, one of the clutch of Bush songs that’ll always be right there, almost unbearable in its regret and dwindling hope.
2. Aerial (2005)
So that’s how Bush managed to stay out of the public eye for so long. “Eye of Braille/Hem of anorak/Stem of wallflower/Hair of doormat” – that’s the recipe of ‘How To Be Invisible’. It worked for 12 years, before she returned in a blaze of… honey, as it happens. Divided into two parts, ‘A Sea Of Honey’ and’ A Sky Of Honey’, ‘Aerial’ is a happy album that celebrates Bush’s son on the Tudor folk of ‘Bertie’ and her late mum on the delicate ‘A Coral Room’. Musical phrases repeat throughout, creating the feeling of a suite that swoops from the heart-stopping hooks of ‘Prologue’ to the Balearic funk of ‘Nocturn’. She even makes listing the components of Pi sound sensuous.
1. Hounds Of Love (1985)
“I wish I had a five-year plan but I never plan too far ahead,” Bush told NME in 1982. “I get into trouble because I always take longer to do things than I expect.” By the time ‘Hounds Of Love”s advance guard ‘Running Up That Hill’ arrived in 1985, Bush had been stuck on the ‘missing’ list – imagine getting worked up by a three-year gap now. So much made ‘Hounds Of Love’ worth that wait – the saucy sexual abandon of the title track, the dreamlike glitching phases of ‘Waking The Witch’, gorgeous fairy light coda ‘The Morning Fog’, the absolutely expressible joy of ‘Cloudbusting’ (“But just saying it could even make it happen!”) – and every bit of it makes it worth revisiting now.