4:42 pm Nov. 22, 20117
Kate Bush’s 10th studio album, 50 Words for Snow, makes it easy to lose track of the two decades since Kate Bush’s pop impact was made. The first phrases of the opener, “Snowflake,” sound so out of touch with contemporary music as to make the past 20 years seem to disappear altogether.
Only the presence of her 13-year-old son Albert in his whistle register on the album reminds that life’s cycle continued. The sensation only continues as the bass kicks in: Taut and thin and electric, a sound unheard in pop for ages. The guitars frizzle as if Fripp were still in demand. Add Steve Gadd’s toms, brushed snares, and the amorous synth pads and the record's most contemporary influence would still be something like Talk Talk at their least pop.
Bush's late ’70s and early ’80s chart-dominating hits, from “Wuthering Heights” through “Don’t Give Up,” similarly fade from memory, leaving only their affect, handfuls of chords, and those velvety vocal edges of hers.
As the seven songs on this snow-themed album unfold, all that anachronism is what becomes its relevance. Kate Bush in 2011 might sound out of place, but at the same time it is impossible to listen to Kate Bush in 2011 without hearing and comparing her to all the many who have followed her lead. Perhaps the sparseness of this winter walk is her best way to get out of a very crowded house.
To name a few present-day acolytes, Janelle Monae, Florence Welch, Bat for Lashes, and Feist have distilled what they can out of Bush’s powerful voicings and arrangements, adding r&b, light song, or electronic interventions to their predecessor’s pop-structured experimentalism. But their orchestrations often overwhelm the song itself. To compare Bush’s in-the-pocket left-hand arpeggios over lazy clarinets and crash simmers on the jazz-tinged “Lake Tahoe” to St. Vincent's Annie Clark and her much-lauded, overwrought deployment of sampled horns and strings is a lesson in the upside to the unfashion of getting older in pop: Learning how to use much less and say much more (and not end up sounding like Joni Mitchell).
Then there are those who try to turn words as Bush does, with the crisp diction and verbiage of a Victorian peeress and the odd, leaping melodies of an ecstatic nun.
Both Antony Hegarty and Joanna Newsom were accused of Bush phrase-alikes in their early careers, but have grown into stronger artists. You could say a measure of their artistic success is that they both went through their Bush-phases on the way to a Bush trajectory, taking the imperative to strive for the singular voice beyond the limits of genre, being only themselves and making a new space all the while. They, more like David Byrne than Miles Davis, hone one sound to a diamond and make that their life’s voice.
With Bush, each instrument and each word or phrase serves the whole song precisely. It’s the definition of craft: not a sound is wasted; of course, that perfectionism also yielded the gap in her recording between 1993 and 2005.
“Misty” is one such elaboration of the Bush axiom that succeeds, with its Stevie Nicks aimless-smolder groove set against sparse, open-ended refrains that sharpen rather than sustain pain. “Wild Man” is that song's direct opposite; here, Bush borrows Laurie Anderson’s playful up-speak on verses ("The school maaaster of Dar-JEE-ling/ Said/ He saw you by the Tengbo-CHE Mon’STE’ry") while TV on the Radio-style falsetto-soul backups bolster the chorus in what becomes a narrative of and warning to the abominable snowman; a yeti boy to Bowie’s “China Girl.”
The '90s were, in a lot of ways, less weird in the mainstream than the '80s ever were, with only a few folks like Björk and Tori Amos holding down the New Wave fort, Radiohead taking it to rock-opera heights, and Nine Inch Nails taking it industrial. It took a decade for indie music to shift from its aggro/lo-fi space to the more open aesthetic spaces Kate Bush helped create in pop, perhaps as better tracking became cheaper and the next generation forgot punk’s anti-art bias. Mary Timony and Throwing Muses might be seen as fire-minders there.
Meanwhile, the Kate Bush superfans, the many many, coalesced online, as though manning the barricades to keep Bush relevant. Those communities became some of the best discussants of pop on the early Internet; there’s a treasure trove of arcane lyrical analysis for generations just getting into the Kate cosmology. Somehow this helped her make the generational leap that Peter Gabriel could not.
After 2000, both the “return of rock” in the post-punk purism of, say, the White Stripes, and the post-Britney pop explosion have had a strange consequence on the careers of Kate Bush’s inheritors, our ladies of prog. P.J. Harvey, an idiosyncratic pop genius on par with Bush, started to want to look like a vamp, like Karen O. Was it about youth, badassery, sex appeal, or just that mid-'00s Top Shop sheen that she was going for? Tori Amos went that route as well, as, somewhat more controversially, did Liz Phair. Once the most photographed girl in England, Bush became a voice detached from a body by the '90s.
Bush in her fifties now aims to remind us. Her ode to sex with a snowman, “Misty,” is more a daydream of tryst rather than appeal for it. It’s part pygamlion (“mold his body”), part Anais Nin, and all melty. Not even the most troggy reviewer has freaked at the sound of menopausal lust. Not yet, anyway. Still, for all the unthawed intimacy she shares with the public in song, she remains uninterested in our gaze elsewhere. Fantasy is the stuff of fandom anyway, and no one knows that better than Bush. Bush doesn’t give interviews, doesn’t tour, and her friends guard her privacy fiercely. Graeme Thomson’s 2011 unauthorized Bush biography, Under The Ivy, must have been a real trek.
That split between the sexiness of the performer and the opacity of the person is why the artist this album most reminds me of is neither her ‘90s flame-keepers nor today’s waifish angels of orchestral indie and R & B, but Lady Gaga. The ballad “Snowed in at Wheeler Street” is the most obvious route for comparison, not least because it’s the best duet Elton John’s done with any diva in a long while, but also because the dominant delayed-synth melody is a submarine “Poker Face.” Both ladies are homemade grotesques, alternatively frank or fragile in their sex talk behind creature costumes, big piano chords, and non-traditional, deep vocal registers. To get to Gaga we go through Grace Jones, Madonna, Courtney in her wayward tiara, Beyoncé in modes both demure and diva, and get back to Bette Midler. Yet in Gaga’s mind, probably mostly when she's at the piano, she is Kate.
On this album, Kate Bush goes through all the other Kate Bushes to get back to “Kate Bush.” As Ann Powers said of the album on NPR, “welcome home!” Same with P.J. Harvey, who won a second Mercury Prize at 41 for the abrupt about-face to raw emotion in tight pop structure. These two facts only confirm the status of these groundbreaking women as makers of a parallel tradition of art into pop, one discounted at first as “quirky” or “oddball” but now able to be seen as masters at drawing from prog’s fusion impulse and new wave’s queerness, irreverence, and passion for the innovation in a pop package.
Rob Young’s fantastic book Electric Eden charts the old and new of British folk as “the secret garden of British culture." Young names Bush not as a new-waver but as one in the long lineage of Anglo musicians whose occult-tinged voices sing of nature and sky in odd time signatures with non-rock instruments, their bumper stickers reading “Keep England Weird.”
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