Thursday, November 24, 2005

December will be magic again

Hello, hello,

It's been an age since I've written, it seems. Lots has been happening, but most of it is still in process so I shouldn't write about it yet. But here's something I can write about...


Kate Bush, Aerial

Despite my earlier anxieties, Aerial arrived without copy protection, so I did not have to fret about whether or not to own a legal copy. I have listened to it now repeatedly and like it better each time. The "album" presentation adopts the metaphor of vinyl, with two "sides" represented by two discs: "A Sea of Honey" and "A Sky of Honey." Both display Kate in fine form, offering a contradictory reflection of the title image: while often fanciful, and even playful, the album is never lacking in substance.

"A Sea of Honey", the first disc, presents seven unrelated songs. The single, "King of the Mountain", is melodic and catchy; when I heard Kate Bush interviewed, she explained that she was trying to imitate Elvis Presley's vocal delivery style — that explanation makes her somewhat indistinct singing through the verses much easier to understand! "Pi" is perhaps one of those "be careful what you wish for" songs — in the past, fans have rashly made statements about being willing to listen to Kate recite the phone book, and that is roughly what she does here, chanting through more than 100 decimal places of pi. Although that description probably elicits shudders, the song itself is quite good (but I still don't like her use of interplay with the chorus, a habit she formed on The Red Shoes). "Bertie" is a beautiful tune with Renaissance instrumentation, but is lyrically very thin. Fans are quite divided over it: some despise it for its embarrassingly honest expression; others admire it for its musicianship. I find it appealing — very listenable, although I would hesitate to sing along with it — and being the mother of an only child myself, I can understand the unabashed adoration Kate declares for her young son. Bah, all you cynics, bah!

"Mrs Bartolozzi" is a puzzling song for me. It's quite powerful but I don't really understand it. Musically, it feels ungrounded; perhaps it will grow on me over the next few months. "How to be Invisible" is likely to be the next single (if there is another single); it's very uptempo and intelligent, although not quite dance floor material. Somehow it feels most like what I expected to hear on this album; perhaps it has the strongest root in the eighties (at least for me). Many fans have likened "Joanni" to a Tori Amos song, and my assessment is similar: it sounds like Kate decided to show singers like Sarah McLachlan and Tori Amos how to write! It is atmospheric and evocative, with lovely little sounds running around in the background, creating a complex listening experience. The most universally well-received song is one that I don't really care for yet: "A Coral Room". To me, it sounds like two underdeveloped song ideas fused. It is emotionally appealing throughout, with some gorgeous musicianship, but it simply doesn't wrench my heart.

One of the reasons I have yet to learn to love "side one" of the album may be that "side two", "A Sky of Honey", is one of the most sumptuous popular recordings I have ever heard. Kate Bush has lost none of her power in her decade away from the business. It is an astonishing creation.

The first four tracks establish the themes for the piece; the nine songs form a cycle or "concept" around the movement of light through a day. The writing is perceptive but a little distant, largely based on experimentation with sound, until track five, "Sunset," on which we hear Kate Bush perform in a jazz idiom that slides gradually into a world music sound. It's brilliant. The next track will either amuse or repulse listeners: Kate sings to bird song — the idea sounds absolutely cracked, but incredibly the performance works. "Somewhere in between" moves into liminal spaces: shadows, the transformation between day and dusk, twilight and starlight — another lovely, complex song with jazz inflections on Kate's mature style.

The centrepiece of the disc is "Nocturn", the longest recording of Kate's career. The song begins with a quiet, warbling vocal and gradually builds into a spectacular mass of voices and instrumentation — I cannot imagine anyone with a pulse being unmoved by the climax of this track. It is also one of the sexiest songs Kate has ever recorded, both lyrically and vocally. The main vocal is bell-pure, while the harmonies are deep and sultry; the instrumentation is intricate and sophisticated. WOW! I have listened to this track dozens of times now, and it gets better with every hearing. The disc finishes with the title track, a high-energy, percussion-heavy performance wrapped around a small number of phrases and Kate's maniacal laughter. I found it bizarre on my first listen, yet it works perfectly to tie the cycle together; the disc couldn't end any other way, musically or thematically.

So, while I've still only lukewarm about disc one, I think disc two is utterly gorgeous. I should mention that both discs flicker with moments reflecting Kate's earlier work, although likely only long-time fans will recognize these little flashes. Vocal touches throughout, aural effects on certain songs, and lyrical concerns give the record a degree of artistic unity generally unseen in popular music. This is a mature, accomplished work — and yet it's clear that Kate Bush had a great deal of fun creating it. It may not be art, but it's as close as a popular form is likely to get, and I really like it.


Anyway, this has taken much longer than I intended to write, so I must go. I hope all is well with you! More soon...


Now playing: Aerial, of course!
Now reading: Millions of student essays...

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