Was Kate Bush the last of Britain’s avant-garde hitmakers?

news image

HERE IS a piece of trivia that is not really trivial: the first female solo artist to have a record shoot straight to number one on the British albums chart was Kate Bush in 1980. It was “Never for Ever”, her third LP, and she was also the first British woman to top, as a solo act, a chart that had by then been in existence for 24 years. Today, women claim the spot more frequently and some of the boldest musicians, artistically speaking—Janelle Monáe, Lorde, Beyoncé—are among the most popular. Four decades ago, Kate Bush stood alone in that regard.

At a time when many of the nation’s biggest acts err on the side of blandness, it is worth recalling how an artist of Ms Bush’s sheer strangeness became one of the outstanding stars of the day. Like David Bowie before her, she took a fascination with literature, theatre, dance and the avant-garde into the mainstream. She traded in the unusual from the beginning, and only became more radical as she went on. Ms Bush had little truck with artistic compromise: she fought her record company’s choice of a debut single, opting instead for the billowing “Wuthering Heights”, which carried her vocal range, exaggerated mannerisms and love of dramatic narrative to number one in the singles chart. She disregarded many of the usual strategies of music promotion, most notably live performance (Ms Bush undertook one series of concerts in 1979, and got around to a second in 2014). 

A remastered edition of her first seven albums, issued in two box sets, offers the opportunity to follow once more the uncommon course she took. Over the 11 years in which they were released, Ms Bush developed from a teenage ingénue exploring the edges of the singer-songwriter style into an artist who seemed to have devised her own musical language, exploiting new sampling and editing technology while delving back into traditional music for her sources. If her early work sometimes had an understandable callowness to it, she was also capable of extraordinary insight. It is almost frightening to think that Ms Bush wrote the lovely, low-key “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” when she was 13 and recorded it three years later, so tender and powerful is its understanding of love and relationships.

After the success of her first album, “The Kick Inside” (1978), Ms Bush’s follow-up, “Lionheart”, released the same year, felt like something of a hurried repeat job. The two years she spent on “Never For Ever” resulted in a richer, more mystical, more sonically and thematically diverse record. It was an immediate smash, aided by two hit songs—“Babooshka” and “Army Dreamers”—which even in an era of inventive singles stood out for their atypical subject matter and arrangements; one a cautionary folk tale in cod-Russian style, the other an understated waltz-time protest lament for a dead boy-soldier.

It was a frantic working period, and Ms Bush appeared to be on a downward career trajectory when she released “The Dreaming” in 1982. Experimental almost to the point of confrontation, and largely stripped of the melodicism which had sweetened its predecessors, it is not an easy record to listen to, although it teems with ideas. The poorest-selling LP in her catalogue, it still reached third place in the British album chart. Ms Bush responded by building her own high-end studio in a barn at her family’s farmhouse and it was there, at home and at peace, that she created her masterpieces.

“The Hounds of Love” (1985), divided into a pair of song suites, is a rich, beautiful and near-perfect record, and utterly sui generis. Wildly adventurous in its songwriting, its musical structure and its use of the studio, it became Ms Bush’s biggest original album. The first side was stuffed with such stunning songs as “Running Up That Hill” and “Cloudbusting”, but it is the even more wonderful second side that represents Ms Bush’s artistic peak. “The Ninth Wave”, the obliquely related tale of a person overboard in the sea trying to survive the night, is pure magic, and a triumphant vindication of the narrative mode she loves. 

Its successor, “The Sensual World” (1989), featured a more standard set of songs, and it too is a work of gorgeous maturity. The title track, in which Ms Bush drew on James Joyce the way her girlhood self did with Emily Brontë, is ravishing, as is her incorporation elsewhere of the Trio Bulgarka’s interweaving voices. Her next album, the uneven “The Red Shoes” (1993), preceded a 12-year recording hiatus. 

Ms Bush had already set the bar so high that even she, let alone her contemporaries, would thereafter struggle to surmount it. Yet at no point has she ever become predictable, nor has she lost her creative ambition. As the British music mainstream plays things ever more safe, Ms Bush stands as a reminder of what might be achieved by taking risks.

Read More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *