In 1886, Vincent Van Gogh painted a pair of workman’s boots placed on a rustic table; a work of intimate beauty, which achieves transcendence where the subject matter appears so lacklustre (Hall, 2001). Similarly, Kate Bush’s Aerial (2005), complete with themes of washing machines, clothes wavering in the breeze, the movement of ocean tides and birdsong in scat scansion electrifies the domestic mundane. Aerial, the album whose release was ‘imminent’ from the year 2000 and whose opening track ‘King of the Mountain’ was composed as early as 1996 (Moy, 2007), manifests Kate Bush’s sophisticated musicality in a manner which exalts the commonplace. This she achieves: not through soaring themes of tragic love or Houdini-esque escapism, not through the microtonal discordance of the Bulgarian women’s choir nor her brother Paddy Bush’s teeth-jangling guitar riffs, not through threatening to swap places with god nor dancing to death in the same red shoes David Bowie decried, nor releasing a plethora of fiendish critters from underneath her skirts, but through the meditative beauty of domesticity and the natural world.
Like Van Gogh’s boots, the album elicits mysticism through simplicity rendering the material sublime. If anyone can grow up to sing airy odes to washing machines and to her tiny son Bertie (b. 1998), Kate can. If anyone can feature the didgeridoo-appropriating Rolf Harris on themes, which reference French impressionism and English pastoral music for a full six minutes about gentle rain smudging an artist’s canvas causing ‘all the colours [to] run’, Kate can (Bush, 2005). The album’s work is homespun organic (rather than rock extravaganza): transcendental (rather than chart topping) and delicately orgasmic (rather than attention-seeking pageantry as with Kate Bush prior to 2005). As Kate (2005) states in ‘Joanni’:
“All the banners stop waving
And the flags stop flying
And the silence comes over”
Thus, in Aerial, there is quietude and contemplation, even behind its rock anthems. Despite the demeaning claims of cynical reviewers, Aerial (her first album ‘doubling’ since Hounds of Love (1985)) represents the artistic maturation of Kate Bush, thereby re-emphasising her continuing relevance to the ‘adult’ market (Moy, 2007: p. 124).
Pete Townsend once dissented, “Stop judging us by what we did when we were stupid, stupid kids”. Although referring to The Who’s wild antics (culminating with the death of Keith Moon), Townsend’s protest applies to the band’s rock juvenilia as well, becoming the catch cry of ‘aging rocker[s]’ who survive the 1970s (Bowie in Parkinson, 2002). In the wake of 70s excess, performing greats such as Townsend, Bowie, Freddie Mercury (R.I.P.) and Suzi Quatro find themselves battling a public, which, while forgiving their transgressions, will not allow their musical acumen to evolve. Add to this the confronting reality of growing up astoundingly beautiful in the public eye and you have the indefatigable Kate Bush: as T.S. Eliot (1920) muses, “some infinitely gentle, Infinitely suffering thing”, but with a generous dollop of Lindsay Kemp-inspired sassiness. Like so many 70s/80s rock heroes, critics compare Kate’s more recent work to the ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1978) of her early career while simultaneously making no secret of their dirty obsession with her eccentric sexuality (Vermorel, 1983). As Ron Moy illustrates, these ‘over-deterministic’ analyses usually tell us more of the critics’ psyches than Kate Bush’s contribution to thematically insightful music (2007: p. 1). In the Freudian (1986) sense, Kate is championed and punished simultaneously: her very attractiveness entrapping her. As one (bombastic) biographer notes (Vermorel, 1983: p. 63):
“Kate Bush is our goddess Frig. And like the Saxons we both revere and fear her. Shroud her in the mystery of her power and the power of her mystery.”
These critics yearn for Kate’s peculiar mix of angry femme noir and high art with the same vehemence that schoolboys draw lascivious parallels from her surname. There is no doubt the Bexleyheath pariah, Kate Bush, known for pop, art rock and neo-baroque composition, creates fame partly based on her remarkable sensuality, but more importantly makes significant contribution to the progression of serious pop music. Aerial is a prime example of such artistry as evinced though: Kate’s sublimated sexuality; mysticism; repetition as motif; the pastoral tradition; and her pervasive musicality.
The finally released 2005 album, Aerial, went platinum the following year and was awarded a BRIT nomination for Best British Album. In examining Aerial, which sold 90,000 copies in its first week of release and peaked at number three in the British charts, we must also acknowledge Kate’s significance as sexualised female and the ways in which critics have positioned her in the decades leading up to this album (Bush, 2015). In modern (fourth wave) feminist vein, trading on sex appeal is not a transgression, but an asset. Indeed, even the 1978, neck-to-ankle-gowned Kate Bush strategically used her sexuality for notoriety and deserves due respect for doing so. To what degree Kate was able to control the rapid trajectory of her fame (as Sinead O’Connor, Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus decades later) is debatable.
In this age of pop-pornification, Kate Bush seems relatively tame, but no one forgets the carnal expressionism of ‘black widow’ doll making love to a double bass in ‘Babooshka’ (1980); no one forgets the skyrocketing voice effortlessly emerging from the willowy sensuality of ‘Wuthering Heights’ (an effect found contemporaneously in popular Bollywood theme songs rather than in Western pop music). The retiring, yet brazen and Elvin voice from the ghostly Goth who became ‘every schoolboy’s fantasy’: Kate Bush, the seventeen-year-old nymphette discovered and initially financed by Pink Floyd’s virtuoso guitarist Dave Gilmour, represents a mystical and mesmeric contradiction (Moy, 2007).
Kate is the quintessential English rose, whose sprightly face and lithe body arrest global attentions. Here lies one of the abiding prejudices of pop music: that the serious, female, pop composer must be vigorously objectified rather than appraised solely for her artistry. Even seasoned critics elide Kate’s phenomenal talent as they gaze into those magical eyes. Entire biographies have been dedicated to unravelling the shamanic mystery of Kate’s beauty, rather than serious studies of her groundbreaking musical experimentation.
This is where the problem with Aerial lies: not with Kate Bush’s visionary genius, but with shallow commentators insisting she perform pop music to a hard beat, which shows off the litheness of her body rather than her vision as an artist.
Those critics ought also acknowledge that in 1978 Kate Bush became the first woman ever to top the British charts with a self-written song (Thomson, 2010). This is no small achievement in the misogynist world of rock charting: “an industry that still largely conforms to stereotypes of patriarchy” (Moy, 2007: p. 3). In the U.K., an artist once championed for such a hit generally remains in the popular zeitgeist for the rest of their career (which is not the case in the USA or Australia, where tearing down icons becomes the norm). We should acknowledge, therefore, that while Kate Bush clearly earned the right to her sexualisation, her sexuality followed her artistic success.
We might also understand that Kate (like so many pop artists denied the opportunity) deserves the right to grow up, to mature: she has surely earned her capacity to say what she wishes in the manner she wished to say it. Curiously, it is not so much Kate’s fan-base who rebukes the impressionistic bricolage of Aerial, but the critics who make retroactive comparison to The Kick Inside (1978), Never For Ever (1980), The Dreaming (1982), Hounds of Love and The Sensual World (1989). As one commentator opines, in lambasting the 2005 album, the pop song requires intense build up of tension through verse and middle eight then explodes with the expected ‘orgasm’ of sound into the chorus. Bowie knew this in ‘Starman’ (1973), Queen knew it in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (1975): just as Kate knew in ‘Wuthering Heights’. In this career-defining song, inspired by the 1967 BBC mini-series based on Emily Brontë’s eponymous novel, the screaming passion of, “Cathy, it’s Heathcliff, I’ve come home now, so co-ho-ho-hold, let me in your windo-ho-ho-ow”, leads to the repeated intoning of, “Wuthering, Wuthering, Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff!” which climaxes the chorus bringing shivers to the spine some four decades later. In ‘Babooshka’, the simmering tension of clandestine infidelity, “She signed the letter…” literally busts into the vengeful refrain: “Aye-yi, Babooshka, Babooshka, Babooshka, yi-yi!” (Bush, 1980). The augmentation of such pop clichés in Aerial represents the album’s point of difference, its strength as impressionistic musing and the fruition of a significant artist.
Trading as her newly formed company, Noble and Brite, under EMI Records Ltd., Aerial includes long-time collaborators Del Palmer, Paddy Bush, Stuart Elliott and Michael Kamen (R.I.P.) conducting the London Metropolitan Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios. The album exploits musical mesmerism, which dovetail into the soundscape with bridging passages between songs and features rhythmic, human laughter and scat singing paralleled with birdsong harmonies. In a lyrical echo of this, the prologue opens with a voice recording of Kate’s son Bertie inquiring, “Mummy? Daddy? The day is full of birds. Sounds like they’re saying words,” followed by Kate musing, “We’re going to be laughing about this” (as subsequently she does with characteristic bird-like capriciousness).
The inner cover design by Kate and Peacock proscribes washing blowing vigorously in the wind before rows of redbrick two-up/two-downs: patterns forming at the interface of domesticity and sensuality as they merge with the near indiscernible doves flapping in their midst thanks to John Calder-Bush’s decisive photography. On closer inspection, the inner sleeve reveals Kate’s famous ‘Elvis’ suit pegged up and blowing about on the clothesline: a visual joke, which also betrays an ingrained sadness: the performative mask rejected, the histrionics passed, the pop icon hung out to dry, but also a musing on the nature of celebrity (Moy, 2007: p. 124). The design work is littered with clouds, pigeons, blackbirds, seagulls, gannets with eyes under their wings, Randy Olson’s Indus Bird Mask and digital sonic waveforms. These visuals promise the listener a collage of musical secrets: a message to her fans and reference to past songs as if pleading, “Please, let me off the commercial hook.”
The boat named ‘Aerial’, from James Southall’s painting ‘Fisherman’ in the album’s centrefold, is forced into the ocean: a delightful visual paradox playing upon the elements of water and air; sea and sky resonant within the music. With this image, Kate Bush invites us to muse upon the definition of the word ‘Aerial’ as ‘existing, happening, or operating in the air’, ‘performed mid-air’ (Oxford Dictionary, 2015). The double album is appropriately divided into two parts: A Sea of Honey and A Sky of Honey. With Aerial, the surging inevitable of ‘Wuthering Heights’ crowd-pleasing chorus is mostly usurped by simple, melodious poetry. Indeed, Aerial bears more in common with Brian Eno’s ambient music and the themes of House and Garden than with Emily Brontë’s gothic word-scape.
Aerial features finessed lyrical observations drawing comparisons to painterly colours and the night sky in Italy. Like the painter in An Architect’s Dream, “Yes, I need to get that tone a little bit lighter there, maybe with some dark accents coming in from the side there” (Rolf Harris in Bush, 2005). Kate Bush muses upon the infinitesimally small separation between thoughts: a hypnagogic, Zen-like appreciation of organic life. As Rod McKie (2014) opines, “somewhere in between… an inner-space, like a vast landscape in some computer game, which seems to be timeless”. In fact, the album culminates Kate’s abiding thematic collapsing of opposing binaries: you/me; object/I; Other/self; empathetic references to, “I could feel what he was feeling” and multiple “in between” states (2005):
“Somewhere in between
The waxing and the waning wave
Somewhere in between
What the song and the silence say
Somewhere in between
The ticking and the tocking clock
Somewhere in a dream between
Sleep and waking up
Somewhere in between
Breathing out and breathing in,
Like twilight is neither night nor morning.”
Indeed, somewhere in between the pastoral and impressionistic lies Kate Bush’s Aerial; somewhere in between art rock and tonal poetry. Kate Bush’s musicality steps from the nineteenth century folk song and English traditions of pastoral poetry, but no one has synthesised them into palatable art pop quite like Kate. Her earthiness and spiritual nature steps from a sadly antiquated world, bringing strains of occultism and romance in its wake. Her sensibilities visit subjects elided by rock music’s current obsession with hard porn: as delicate as a poem or washing on a clothesline or the ‘flick’ of an artist’s wrists and hips (Bush, 2005).
Famously incorporating English and Irish folk music in her music, Kate evokes mysticism in her music: in particular English eccentricity and bird imagery described in Shakespeare’s (1595) Midsummer Night’s Dream as:
“Every elf and fairy sprite,
Hop as light as bird from brier,
And this ditty after me,
Sing and dance it trippingly.”
Apart from literary references, numerous tonal and lyrical references to Irish Banshees abound throughout her milieu and Aerial is no exception. Citation of British, early twentieth century composer Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’ might seem pretentious coming from less accomplished pop artists, but the simmering Kate, manages the reference both musically and lyrically with utter panache. The pastoral muse is the tradition, which truly couches this album. From Beethoven’s pastoral symphony (no. 6) to Vaughan Williams’ improvisations on themes from Thomas Tallis, the European obsession with the ‘innocent’ countryside is infused within this album. Formalism may be a lesser known quantity in pop music, but as the album cover for Aerial betrays with its digital sound wave forming the dividing horizon between the two elements of the album the sky of honey and the sea of honey, the lush unfolding of long time collaborator Del Palmer’s “trademark slithering fretless bass” (Dwyer, 2005), the rhythms undulate like a lapping tide; and this is but one of the many references to water, ocean and rain in the album.
As ‘An Architect’s Dream’ spills mellifluously into ‘The Painter’s Link’, Kate Bush has provided a sumptuous pastoral meditation: Bosco D’Oliveira’s percussion unfolding like the wheels of a country squire’s cart. The album is positively dripping with British jingoism: Kate’s personal Lionheart (1978).
Sunset announces that ‘all the colours run’ as the texture literally melts thematically, lyrically and musically from one statement into the next. Gone is the R & B formula and screaming nightmare of ‘Hounds of Love’; gone the unbridled passion of ‘Wuthering Heights’ and as ‘The Kick Inside’ morphs into the birth of her son, Bertie (a child Kate clearly cherishes). Indeed, the adulation of innocence in the form of children harks back to former compositions, ‘The Infant Kiss’ (1980) and ‘The Man With the Child in his Eyes’ (1978) (the latter reputedly written when Kate was just thirteen (Moy, 2007)).
In ‘A Sea of Honey’ Kate’s voice wavers like lapping water. The elemental creeps from the dulcet tones and characteristic soft ‘R’s of her eccentric pronunciation. She sings of colours and makes biblical references: “Where sands sing in crimson red and rust, then climb into bed and turn to dust.” Like Bowie, Kate Bush represents shamanic and animistic proportions (Hunt, 2014). Through projected religiosity with Celtic proportions and fascination for nature, Kate invokes the natural world: a near psychotic projection of animism in the significance of the inanimate, like washing machines and the serendipity of rain on oil painting. Indeed, in reference to Aerial, it should be noted that poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, proves more popular with youth audiences than his protégé William Wordsworth, mainly due to the latter’s sublimation of sexual imagery within nature (as Freudian (1990) analysis illustrates): a practice the later Victorian poets knew well. How much like Kate Bush’s lyrics does Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott (1832) seem? Especially regarding the mourning maidens of ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘The Man with The Child in his Eyes’? Indeed, the absence of palpable sexuality might explain the lesser success of the singles from Aerial than the album (Moy, 2007), given youth culture’s fascination with the single market.
Indeed, sublimated sexuality also explains the preponderance of repetition in the album. While R & B formula (and Kate herself) is no stranger to repetition, Aerial embraces a gentle Freudian ‘compulsion to repeat’ in numerous ways (1983). Where ‘Wuthering Heights’ repeats the eponymous title in a mantra, which batters our sensibilities, ‘Mrs. Bartolozzi’s’ gentle, non-pop repetition, “Washing machine… Washing machine…” allows the phrase and music to die and resonate between iterations. The effect is mesmeric. The music itself, rather than constantly announcing noise, announces a right to gentility and silence as in the repetition of ‘π’s’ numeric formula (Bush, 2005):
“Sweet and gentle and sensitive man
With an obsessive nature and deep fascination
In a circle of infinity
The song, like so many others on the album, evokes an animistic joy in things unseen, but uncannily perceived as Freud (1986) illustrates in Totem and Taboo. Further, Kate allows repetition to enhance her experience of the ‘panoramic’ divine (Bush, 2005): that contradiction Kristeva (1982) describes as sublime, the awe of mountainous beauty combined with ingrained fear of the divine (Bush, 2005):
“We went up to the top of the highest hill
It was just so beautiful
It was just so beautiful
It was just so beautiful.”
The repetition sung in her upper register infuses with an awe-inspired timbre of delicacy; Kate Bush at her most divine, which invites the listener to gaze through the eyes of the artist, effecting greater agency than pop and rock’s mind-battering insurgence (which Kate still demonstrates unique aptitude for). Poetic repetition echoes in ‘Prelude’, where the keyboard matches the cooing of pigeons and ends on the dominant rather than resolving the chord structure as the birds repeat their meditative phrase. The final song (as if to remind audiences that she can still generate a rock anthem wall of sound), Aerial, rises to a repetitive climax then instantly ends with the gentle cooing of pigeons, bringing the album to a close with both an unexpectedly orgasmic ‘bang’ and a repetitive ‘whimper’ (Eliot, 1925).
In Aerial, Kate’s lifelong fascination for themes such as innocence, nature, the divine, the Celtic and mystical, breathing, dreaming and romantic passion all repeat in this album in tandem with a new experience of the world: maturity – both artistic and personal. Decline this invitation at your peril, critics.
Where detractors see only imitation and pretension, Kate Bush’s soaring talent as gentle musing in Aerial sits proudly within her established lexicon. Aerial represents the maturation of Kate Bush, which compliments and outgrows her mesmerising, youthful compositions. Aerial celebrates simplicity in domesticity as only a true master such as Van Gogh might render it. It would be fair for critics and fans alike to allow Kate Bush’s sexuality to evolve also: from mystical nymphette to maternal recluse. The stigmas of the past do not pass easily, especially in British pop where, once exalted, the star remains on the pedestal for the duration of their lives and beyond. It seems the flipside of this convention is to tear them down with cold, judgemental ownership. Kate Bush, the critics declare, has no right to experiment, no right to grow and supersede rock cliché. To the contrary, the investigative artistry of Aerial should be considered a significant contribution to the canon of Kate Bush and to the progression of popular music: through simplicity rather than histrionic excess. Kate has created a textual smorgasbord with this album; served to a rarefied palette. Thank-you Kate. The album is breathtaking. Mwah!
The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. Kate Bush ‘Aerial‘ is written by Dr Ian Dixon, one of ARS’ guest academics. Dr Ian Dixon is a well known Melbourne-based film and television director who is also one of the world’s most eminent David Bowie scholars. (Follow Dr Ian Dixon on Twitter @IanIandixon66)