Has Kate Bush ever made a bad album? Is she an acquired taste? Should she be looked upon with the same reverence as The Beatles? If someone you love doesn’t like her, can their opinion be trusted? Is she underrated? Overrated? Join historian Matthew Restall and I (Hope) as we dig madly, deeply, and excessively into the discography and ponder all its treasures ‘n’ trolls. It’s in the trees, it’s coming!
MATTHEW: As you, Hope, recently referred to Kate Bush on PuR as your lord and savior, it seemed appropriate for us to praise her—and appraise her remarkable catalog of albums—in this the year she turns 64 (this very month). This also gives us a chance to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of her seminal album The Dreaming (but is it one of her best?!), and to protest her third unsuccessful nomination to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (2018, 2021, 2022) (but really who gives a monkey’s? Not Kate, surely!).
We were also half way through the conversation below when Kate had an explosive, unexpected moment. As I write, “Running Up That Hill” is #1 in the UK and seven other countries, in the US Top Five, and the biggest worldwide hit of her career. I have no problem with a BBC DJ referring to the song as “from the Stranger Things” soundtrack, with no mention of it being 37 years old or of its masterful parent album, Hounds of Love; on the contrary, I like the way that grants Kate a kind of timelessness. But for us, and perhaps for you too, dear reader, context matters much—both the historical context of the 45-year Bush career, and our own personal context as fans. What follows below, then, is some of that context.
HOPE: Back in 2003, Tricky, a pretty inventive artist in his own right, offered some words about Kate to MOJO magazine that I have never forgotten and continue to adore;
“Some of the greatest singers in the world…you can spot their influences. But Kate Bush has no mother or father. I’d be an average musician, like everyone else, if it wasn’t for her. I don’t believe in God, but if I did, her music would be my bible. Her music sounds religious to me. She should be treasured more than The Beatles”.
I especially love the last line. It’s not a hot take, it’s a proud and heartfelt plea. And I get it. Kate Bush is a singular, once-in-a-generation artist, the rarest of rare birds, completely out there, in possession of an almost incomprehensible talent yet utterly relatable, a mouthpiece, sage and pal to the glorious population of weirdos that love her ( including maybe you reading this, definitely us writing this, and for sure Big Boi from OutKast).
Kate’s ongoing Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame rejection is bullshit. But to be honest, I regard the RRHOF the same way I do The Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! and Guinness Book museums. Induction seems now to be determined by whoever yells the loudest. And fact is, Kate Bush is not one of those people who needs this type of official validation to cement her legacy. She’s inspired generations of damn fine artists (including Tori Amos, Joanna Newsom and Florence Welch), given millions of people the strength to get through their darkest hours and made transcendently wonderful songs that sound like literally no one else’s. So you know, f*ck the RRHOF. What she does is just between you and her anyway, a museum display isn’t gonna change anything. Wow, we’ve barely started and already I’m ranting like a nut. Okay, just keep breathing, out, in, out in.
Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow, wow, un-freaking-believable.
We Both Matter Don’t We?: As you mentioned, Matthew, about a month or so after we started writing this something strange happened…or rather something Stranger Things happened. Kate’s 1985 classic “Running Up That Hill” was used to soundtrack a climactic scene in the Season 4 premiere episode. And over the day that followed, the song completely blew up, subsequently ascending to the top of the Apple Music chart, and then national charts around the world, garnering millions plays on Spotify and YouTube, inspiring masses of TikTok videos and triggering the publication of trillions of listicles ranking Kate songs.
Unsurprisingly, some of the existing Kate fanbase weren’t happy about her newfound popularity. The main sticking point, as it traditionally is in these scenarios, was that she “belonged” to the original fans who’d been there from the start, who experienced her career in real time, whose discovery of her was more organic and, arguably, more authentic. These proprietary feelings led to a bit of finger-wagging and gatekeeping on social media, the core message of which was “if you weren’t there at the beginning or before Stranger Things, you don’t belong here, you’ll never really get it and f*ck off”.
When it comes to music, it doesn’t matter where, when or how you came in. Songs, albums and bands find you when they sense you are ready to welcome them. It’s not science, it’s just some fortuitous, otherworldly force that hits the switch and says “now”. And sometimes it happens in silly ways to a lot of people at once, like through a film or freakin’ tv show or a TikTok video. But as stupid and obvious as it sounds, music is meant to be heard.
And so if you’re an old fan, stand proud, you got to experience Kate in a way that most of the new acolytes never will. How lucky you were! You will always have that! But the fact that a whole new generation is now discovering her is a really brilliant thing. Hell, I myself didn’t discover her until 1983, which is ridiculously late by hardcore fan standards! I guess what I’m saying is Kate was an anchor and inspiration for so many of us sensitive, shy, weirdo kids back in the day, let her be that for those same kinds of kids now. It’ll only make the world a better place. P.S. For some reason, I’m already pissed about the fact that her newfound popularity as a result of the “Running” explosion is probably going to catapult her into the Hall Of Fame next year, because it shouldn’t have taken something like that to tip the scales (dammit). No really, I’m fine.
Be Kind To My Mistakes: Just a note on the format of this essay: Matthew and I are going to be taking turns offering up our Kate assessments and our names will appear before our respective comments. We are going to rate each album individually (on a classic 1-10, hate-to-love scale), and will feature complete ranking lists at the end of the essay.
MATTHEW: Although she gave us two albums her first year (1978), and then two in a single year decades later (2011), Kate Bush has only released a total of nine original studio albums in 44 years (as of 2022). She works at her own pace, and that pace is unpredictable—which is all part of the fun and fascination of Kate fandom. In our chronological discussion below, we’ve also included her only compilation or hits album, an album of studio re-recordings, and her sole live album—making a grand total of 12 ranked albums, discussed by us in chronological order.
The Kick Inside (1978)
MATTHEW: (UK #3, Top Ten in seven nations, did not chart in the US): Kate Bush is a hypnotist. The combination of her strangely theatrical singing, melodic piano playing, imaginative storytelling, and evocative channeling of emotion is utterly mesmerizing. I was captivated at the age of 14, as “Wuthering Heights” took the UK by storm and instantly made Kate a star—and rightly so. And I was amazed by the collection of weirdly perfect pop songs that is The Kick Inside. Who was this extraordinary teenager, young and old, ordinary and odd, relatable and otherworldly all at the same time? I’m still stunned by this album, especially the way the first side (the first 6 of the 13 songs) builds from “Moving” to “Wuthering,” with “The Man With the Child in His Eyes” never failing to move me. It packs an emotional punch that makes it hard to describe in any kind of evaluative, objective way. Perfect pop of sublime beauty? That’s about the best I can do; because the thing is, I don’t want to describe it, I just want to listen to it.
HOPE: It’s gotten to the point where every time I hear “The Man With the Child in His Eyes”, my first thought is “a 16 going on 17-year-old made this”(!!!). I too remain stunned by this album’s staggering sophistication and the otherworldly imagination on display. It’s freakin’ outrageous.
Kick is seriously front-loaded, its first side home to four straight-up classics (the unpredictable, melodic, goofy, wonders ”Moving” and ”Strange Phenomenon” as well as the aforementioned, seminal ballad “The Man With…” and the behemoth “Wuthering Heights”). What is there to say about “Wuthering Heights” at this point? It is not merely one of the greatest pop songs (of the ‘70s/20th century/ever), but a siren call to let your freak flag fly… literally. There is an annual event that takes place in an assortment of cities around the globe known as “The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever” where wonderful humans join together to recreate the song’s original video. Its beautiful, sloppy loved-up ludicrousness puts every flashmob that’s ever been to shame. Know what, just watch here and here.
The second half of the album has always dragged a bit for me. It starts amazingly enough with the bouncing, pop-rocking “James & The Cold Gun” and the seriously fabulous Laura Nyro-esque, just Kate ‘n’ her piano “Feel It” (this song is SOUL)…but to my ears it really flags after that, with a cloud of saminess hanging over the remaining tunes.
Despite it being home to two of Kate’s most fabled creations, I wouldn’t recommend Kick as the album to start for someone wanting to explore her music for the first time ( honestly it wouldn’t even be in the Top three). Like Emmylou Harris and Joni Mitchell, it took a minute for Kate to get to cruising altitude vocally. All of them sounded more fulsome after they’d gotten a couple of albums (and life years) under their respective belts. Like them, she just got better and better.
This is a 19-year-old. Permission to feel blown away and useless is granted.
MATTHEW: I do see why Side Two drags for you, Hope, and I’d always suggest a Kate newcomer start with Hounds of Love and The Whole Story, then one of the two albums from this century. But I’d then encourage them to go back to the beginning, because Bush is one of those artists with a singular yet continually evolving creative vision—and it is fascinating to see it start here, with the intertwining of her external influences and internal emotional life. With respect to the latter, Side Two of Kick is built around a trio of ruminations on sex and love that captivated my 14-to-16-year-old self. “Feel It,” “Oh To Be in Love,” and “L’Amour Looks Something Like You” were teenage (female) expressions of eroticism and romance that lacked the leering shame-tinged angst of typical (male) pop-rock songs on the subject. As such, they were—and still are—priceless. But of course that was a real-time experience. I can see that in retrospect (and at our ripe age, Hope), such songs might be mere curiosities. (And how Kate is this? There then follows “Them Heavy People,” a pop song about religion! It was a single only in Japan, where it reached #3.) In the end, this is still a dazzling debut, and one of my top three Kate albums.
Album Rating: Hope, 6/10; Matthew, 9/10
MATTHEW: (UK #6, Top Ten in four nations, did not chart in the US): I always resented being told that a sophomore album was a disappointment. When it came out, I liked Lionheart as much as its predecessor (just as I liked Communique as much as Dire Straits), and having the so-called experts correct me smacked of bullying by the taste police—be they older boys at school or music press critics, both groups prone to small-minded misogyny and other forms of bigotry. My not-very-brave reaction to being called a girl for listening to girl music sung by a girl was to, well, keep listening. Take that, you faux punk fans! I taped The Kick Inside and Lionheart on opposing sides of a C-90, and played them equally. In retrospect, I can see that, as a whole, Lionheart is not as strong as the albums that came before and after it. But I still bristle at that knee-jerk criticism.
HOPE: Not to feed into the machine but this is my least favorite Kate album. The whole thing has a bit of an over-the-top show tune flavor I’ve never been able to get into. For me the barrel bottom is dually occupied by the sub-Kurt Weill-ness that is “Coffee Homeground” and screechy sub-Patti Smith “rocker”, “Don’t Push Your Foot On The Heartbrake”. On the good side are “Symphony In Blue”, a semi-sweet, mellow, mushy early Roxy Music-Queen deep cut hybrid and the crazy, wonderful “Wow”. Oh “Wow”, you bug-eyed, plush, anthemic, cheeky cheezeball you. Anyway, I love the song’s utter lack of self-consciousness, like it doesn’t care who’s looking at it (yes, I just anthropomorphized a song and I’m sorry)…which brings me to the “Wow” video, a wow-wow-wow-unbelievable display of hilarious, off the charts charisma and supreme ridiculousness. If you are feeling blue for any reason, I recommend a viewing. From the moment Kate pats her butt while singing “he’s too busy hitting the vaseline” to the up and down look she gives to accompany thet “we think you are really cool” line, its perfect silliness and gigantic heart are healers as good as any medicine.
MATTHEW: My love for Lionheart was probably helped by having no access to those videos (beyond catching them once or twice on Top of the Pops). Instead of theatrical silliness, I was able to hear the album as a continuation of its predecessor’s ethereal beauty, tinged with drama. You are right about the low points, Hope (“Heartbrake” is too screechy, and “Homeground” surely more fun for her to record than for us to hear). But the high points are some of my favorite Kate songs—especially “Wow,” her signature phrase turned pop song, and the bookend tracks “Symphony in Blue” (another great Japan-only single, still such an overlooked gem) and “Hammer Horror” (which won’t make my favorites mix now, but I really loved it at the time). Perhaps you just had to feel the wow in real time?
HOPE: “Hammer Horror” was one of your favorites?! What the hell Matthew! I’ve never cared for that one, though I am hardly the unimpeachable arbiter of what is good and have some dicey Kate faves of my own (winking at you “Reaching Out”, my big bombastic babe, see you a few albums from now!). But seriously, I think because I heard the (better) albums that followed it—Never for Ever and The Dreaming— before I actually heard Lionheart, my standard for what a Kate album was supposed to sound like was completely skewed. As those beauties were my only points of reference, Lionheart was kinda doomed from the start, it was just never gonna sound as good.
Album Rating: Hope, 5/10; Matthew, 7/10
Never for Ever (1980)
MATTHEW: (UK #1, Top Ten in six nations, did not chart in the US): Although still virtually unknown in the US at this point, Kate went from successful to legendary in her home country with Never For Ever—her first #1 UK album, the first album by a solo female artist to hit #1 there, and the first to enter the chart at the top. Also a hit across Europe, in Japan, and elsewhere, this was her first self-produced album, a big step towards total career control. And after the experience of her 1979 tour, she resolved never to hit the road again (not quite “never for ever,” but she’d not give another concert until 2014). After five successful singles from the previous pair of albums, this one birthed three Top Twenty hits in rapid succession in 1980 (topped by a non-album Christmas single at year’s end).
So Kate was suddenly, increasingly massive (everywhere but America), and yet increasingly determined to retreat from the world to be—and make music—with her family, bassist boyfriend, and close circle of friends. Fair enough. And, it would turn out, a massively important decision that still resonates through pop/rock music history. Why? Because she showed that there was a way both to retreat from the sexist abuse of the music industry, the media, and celebrity culture, and to reach global audiences with new music. So, did this third album justify its success? Absolutely!
HOPE: Never For Ever is an absolute cornucopia of weirdness. It is imagination run amuck. The gorgeous “Breathing”— the best fear of nuclear war song sung from a fetus’s perspective ever—and the paranoid God-level-good, pop anthem “Babooshka” are the standouts for me. I also want to acknowledge the underrated elegy for those who’ve passed, the lush as any Chic ballad “Blow Away (for Bill)” with its lovely Sandy Denny and Keith Moon aka “Moony” namechecks. Then, for those of us who crave a tale of illicit fascination-spiritual possession involving the ghost of a deceased adult man living in a child’s body, there is the gloriously unsettling “The Infant Kiss”. Also good and deserving of appreciative nods are kooky “Delius (Song Of Summer)”, and theatrical pop-tastic revenge song “The Wedding List”.
Okay, now let us descend into the murky projections of a desperate teenager listening to Kate Bush in ye olde early ‘80s and looking for clues to bring she and I closer; I hereby admit that upon first listen I took the moody, plush, fantasy vs. reality postcard “Egypt” to be a queer love song. I was completely blown apart and led astray by the “my pussy queen, knows all my secrets” line and the declaration of love in the chorus. To my ears, “Egypt” was a girl. Oh, this thrilled young me. By the time I heard Kate’s actual explanation of the song, how it was about idealizing the actual country and being ignorant to its darker realities, it was just too damn late. I know it’s wrong but “Egypt” is always gonna be my queer Kate song.
And okay, this may be marginally blasphemous but…I’ve never been into the oddball hymn of loss and cult standard “Army Dreamers”. The tune itself is where it falls short for me. But just so you know, that song is not my true enemy on Never, it’s nowhere near. That spot is occupied by the squealing-ly awful, sucky manic mess “Violin” and will be forever. Matthew, I’m curious, did you buy this album straightaway ? Is my aversion to “Army Dreamers” out of line even though I can’t help it?
It’s not you Kate, it’s definitely me.
MATTHEW: I don’t think I was able to buy this album straight away, Hope, but I taped it that autumn of 1980, presumably as soon as I could, because it was so breathlessly anticipated: “Breathing” and “Babooshka,” two of her most inventive and catchy singles, had been hits earlier in the year. I also remember being struck by the originality of “Army Dreamers” (but it’s ok not to like it, Hope!), by the wonderful weirdness of songs like “The Infant Kiss,” by the deft poignancy of “Blow Away,” and by the entire album’s tuneful coherence. For, despite all its sounds and stories (talk about a headphone album!), Never For Ever is relentlessly melodic. Kate’s lyrical and musical imagination seemed—and seem still— limitless and full of surprises. And the album isn’t just inspired, but inspiring, as illustrated by your “Egypt” story (which I adore, and which has forever changed how I hear that song!).
In retrospect, with the hindsight of all nine Bush albums, I can see how much this one showcases the big three themes that inspire her, and which she has consistently explored: literature (sometimes via film), classical music, and nature; but, significantly, all of them English. I’m far from being the first person to observe this, but it is easily lost in the “Running”/Stranger Things chatter: Kate is a profoundly English artist, very much in the tradition of literary and musical English pastoralism going back to the 19th century (even if she is a startlingly original and modern voice in that tradition). I think I sensed that on some level at the time of this album—for example, “Delius,” a song about an English pastoralist composer, inspired by his music but also by a film about him, seemed very Kate—but I certainly could not have articulated it then. I’m not saying that limits her significance. On the contrary, she will surely one day be valued on the same artistic and cultural-heritage level as the Brontë sisters, Tennyson, and Delius.
HOPE: I like that you teenage-taped it, Matthew. That was very Bow Wow Wow “C30, C60, C90 Go!” of you (“I don’t buy records in your shop, I tape them all ‘coz I have Top Of The Pops“!) but I digress. I just want to add my hearty affirmation to something you alluded to; this album is particularly tuneful, easily one of the most melodic in the whole KB discography. To summarize, Never For Ever is flush with unexpected hooks and swoony instrumental flourishes and as such is a total babe.
Album Rating: Hope, 9/10; Matthew, 9/10
The Dreaming (1982)
MATTHEW: (UK #3, Top Ten in three nations, US #157): What did Kate do with the enormous success and unstoppable creative momentum (as Uncut recently called it) fueled by her first three albums? She experimented. Without a thought for how record company execs or teenage fans might react, she went into the studio with her Fairlight sampler (first used by her on the previous album) and a new crew of session musicians, and she dismantled and rebuilt the pop album in wonderfully odd ways. For the first time, she did all the producing, and she took her time (albeit not as much time as she would with later projects). The result confounded her label (EMI), critics, and fans. On the strength of her reputation (and advance single “Sat in Your Lap”) the album charted well, but did not sustain the sales of its predecessors, while four attempts to pull further hit singles from the album failed. Smack in line with that pattern, I bought The Dreaming when it came out, wasn’t sure what to make of it, and then seldom played it. (Hey, I was an 18-year-old pop kid!).
HOPE: Like The Beatles’ White Album and Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, The Dreaming has become the cool Kate album to name-drop as your favorite. More experimental and less bold-facedly commercial, it is by far, her nuttiest, most batshit album (which is saying something considering the three that preceded it). It is, fittingly, one of Bjork’s all-time favorites. But like you Matthew, I confess that it took me decades to wake up The Dreaming’s power as a singular entity. The 20th century saw me solely fixated on the handful of songs I loved and ambivalent about the rest. I now believe, in this year of 2022, that in order to truly appreciate The Dreaming it needs to be listened to as a whole, in sequential order, with all its screaming, stomping, cooing glories coming at you one after the other. Fact is while there are a few exceptional standalone tracks, the majority of the songs are not singularly spectacular enough to stand up on their own and need each other to lean on to live their best lives (kind of like Macca’s London Town album for you old school context nerds and Matthew!).
There’s a core of four songs that supply the ballast for me; the magnificent racket “Sat In Your Lap” (extra points also for its classic cosplaying, roller skating, fabulously absurdist video), dizzying weirdo-waltz of frustration and inspiration “Suspended In Gaffa”, regal hymn of regret “All The Love” and the hot and romantic “Houdini”. Oh “Houdini”, I love you. Telling the story of the great escapes the fabled titular illusionist made with his wife Bess’s assistance and intertwining them with the notion of his making an even greater escape, from the great beyond to reconnect with her, it’s one of the greatest bits of Bush storytelling in the whole discography. The tune and vocal brim with passion and tension and mmm yes, it just f*cking rules.
I feel like the rest of the songs on The Dreaming are held up by the aforementioned “core four”. Yes, “There Goes A Tenner” (though its disturbing similarities to Madness’s “House Of Fun ” remain unsettling) and incredible freaked-out war story “Pull Out The Pin” (vocal shredding mayhem alert!) are great songs. And so are adventurous tempo-jumping, fiddles, pipes ‘n’ penny whistling “Night Of The Swallow” and thumping, thunderous, theatrical closer “Get Out Of My House”, whose coda features Kate’s infamous donkey impression. But they sound so much better to me when they are sandwiched amongst the “core fore”. Listening to the whole album in sequence is like being locked in a theater and watching the weirdest, most romantic, horror-filled piece of stage performance in history.
But seriously Matthew, what tipped the scales for you? Did you get hooked by one song? Do you even think there is one that stands above all others?
MATTHEW: When, in the wake of Aerial, I went back to the early Kate albums, I rediscovered what is my favorite track on The Dreaming, and one of her songs I love the most: “All the Love.” It’s another overlooked gem that is incredibly stirring, an emotional ballad completely devoid of cheesy cliches. Its production quirks and Kate’s lower-register singing anticipate Hounds of Love and beyond—it almost sounds as if it could have been on Aerial!
Just as I was a bit sheep-like in finding The Dreaming too odd in the ‘80s (Neil Tennant called it “very weird” and who was I to argue?), I was similarly sheep-like in deciding in recent decades that it was actually the cool Kate album ahead of its time (called her “overlooked masterpiece” in The Quietus). And now? I agree, Hope: with the possible exceptions of “Sat in Your Lap” and “All the Love,” this album needs to be consumed whole (it’s not just better that way, like Hounds, but needs to be taken as one). And I also think that both my previous opinions were wrongly stuck on the notion of the album as excessively experimental (or “mad,” as Kate herself famously put it). It isn’t, in the end, “very weird.” It is a wonderfully different, intriguingly flawed, very-Bush album. Unequivocally hers, neither her best nor her worst (in the middle of the pack), yet as essential to the whole story as the other eight.
HOPE: My musical foundation was still being built when I first heard this album. To me it sounded as if Kate was “copying” Adam and the Ants, which is of course, stupid. But I literally ascribed all musical adventurousness I heard in the early ‘80s to that same root source. Hearing drums, any drums would instantly trigger thoughts of “Prince Charming”and “Stand and Deliver”in my head. It was a truly ludicrous, uneducated assertion but for a minute of my life I was convinced the sun shone out of Adam’s ass. Clearly I was fixating on the wrong (artistic) ass.
Album Rating: Hope, 9/10; Matthew 7/10
Hounds Of Love (1985)
MATTHEW: (UK #1, Top Ten in seven nations, US #30): As we’ve said before, it matters where you as a listener first entered an artist’s catalog, and what order you then discovered their albums. That is, it matters to you personally and in terms of how you relate to that artist and their catalog. (We obviously agree that with respect to the we-were-here-first fans, it doesn’t matter at all; anyone should be welcome at any time and by whatever means of arrival). Who introduced you to an artist or album can also impact your perception—often for many years. In my case, I was lucky enough to experience early-Kate records in their original order, in real time. Those years were my early teens, and I was as captivated by the music as I was infatuated by its creator. But after The Dreaming, I drifted away, and by the time Hounds of Love came out, I was most of the way through college, my Kate crush feeling like ancient history.
Here’s where the “who” comes in: I happened to be dating an American that year, and for her—like the U.S. in general—Kate was an amazing new artist over whom she instantly went bonkers. The 2022 craze for “Running Up That Hill” (prompted by Stranger Things)? I witnessed something similar in 1985. So, while I turned my American girlfriend onto the earlier albums, she convinced me that Hounds was two perfect pieces of work—Sides One and Two each discrete, coherent, conceptual compositions. She was right, of course. That’s what they are and were designed to be. And I still see—hear—them that way today: as a perfect pair.
HOPE: As a tacky young American in the summer of ‘85, I admit I too was certifiably bonkers for “Running Up That Hill” and could not wait for Hounds to be released. Like everyone else, I fell hard for Side One and its never ending barrage of Everest-sized anthems (“Running Up”,“The Big Sky”, “Hounds Of Love” and the almighty “Cloudbusting”). I fell so hard in fact that apart from my future funeral song, “And Dream Of Sheep”, Side Two aka “The Ninth Wave” didn’t exist for me. I’m not proud of this but at that stage of my life (1985), I was nursing a pretty gigantic, hook-obsessed pop music sweet tooth and had a very short attention span…meaning I was still very much enamored with my Culture Club and Wham! albums. Thus the “Wave” side of Hounds was a step too demanding for me. It gets worse. Though I’ve come to appreciate the genius and ambition of the “Wave” suite over the years, I still only dig slivers of it, specifically, epic lullaby to the planet “Hello Earth” and the aforementioned “Sheep”. I recognize that they are more conventionally melodic than the other tracks that are part of the suite, but there you go; old habits die hard.
“And Dream of Sheep” is just magical. Though Kate has said the scenario it describes is something she finds terrifying (floating alone in the sea at night, wearing a thin life jacket, utterly exhausted, scared and praying to be rescued), the song is extraordinarily comforting. Delicate and dark, built to climb on the back of and cling to (“Come here with me now”, Kate’s Mum intones in the song), it’s also the last song I wanna “hear” when I depart from this earthly plane (no f*cking “Wonderwall” for me thanks).
As far as Side One goes, much as I love “Running” and fondly remember the sweet rush of playing the single in my room for the first time, my absolute first-half fave is the epic anthem of belief, love and rain-making, “Cloudbusting”. Now back in those ‘80s days, if my favorite pop star said they liked something (book, film, artwork etc.), well then, I needed to like it too. I admit my initial interest in Amnesty International and Lolita was set off not by a fascination with human rights or literature but by my unwavering obsession with Sting himself and a desire to “share” something with him. Thus when Kate mentioned in an interview around Hounds release that “Cloudbusting” had been inspired by Peter Reich’s 1973 Book Of Dreams, I just had to have that book dammit.
You know, for a long time I was embarrassed to admit to anyone that a pop star, of all people, had inspired me to seek a particular piece of knowledge. “Why am I reading this book? Because Sting said he liked it”. There was no way I was going to confess that to other kids in school, even though it was no different—more glamorous, even—than a friend or cool teacher recommending a book or author. Fact is, following KB down her inspirational rabbit holes has been a rewarding experience, leading me to such magnificent things as the 1961 film The Innocents, Harry and Bess Houdini, and a species of bird known as the Goldcrest. (I’ve also drawn a hell of a lot of snowmen over the past decade, but we’ll get to that later).
Wanna hear the best ever description of Hounds of Love’s title track? Check out how Slits legend Viv Albertine broke it down in the fab 2014 BBC documentary The Kate Bush Story: “It’s like this repressed sexuality, so sensual, so sexual… like the whole song’s on a leash and you’re tugging it back but you know know it’s just gonna escape, burst and run free”. She so nailed it right?! Take my shoes off and throoooow them in the lake!
Right so, here’s a hot take question for you Matthew (uh oh); do you think that Side One would have worked or sounded as good without the semi-eerie slow burner “Mother Stands For Comfort ” lodged in the middle? I suppose it was good to have a “break” after three beautiful fist-pumping monsters in a row, so all of us could rest…but I wish “the quiet spot” had been occupied by a better song. Yeah, I said it.
MATTHEW: I love that question, Hope, because it’s the kind of nerdy discussion point I have already pondered. I think “Mother” is indeed crucial, as a place to catch one’s breath after the blockbuster intensity of the opening three tracks, and before the visceral heart-filling rush of “Cloudbusting” (just the first five seconds is enough to release the endorphins; the audience reaction on Before The Dawn, for which “Cloudbusting” is the climax, shows I’m far from alone). As for Side Two (or “The Ninth Wave”), it can be best appreciated as a single piece of music, listened to without pause or reference to the track listing—a 26-minute arc of song that is utterly compelling, beautifully constructed, and gorgeous in every way. The artful composition and emotional power of the whole album stuns today as much as in 1985. I hope all those new fans of “Running Up That Hill” immerse themselves in the whole album, from “Hill” to “The Morning Fog.” Some of them will surely come to feel, as I do, that Hounds of Love is essential to life on earth.
HOPE: I don’t think every song on an album has to be single-handedly brilliant for the whole LP to qualify as a masterpiece, which Hounds unequivocally is in its overall vision, execution and performance. For me the determining factors are “how good is the good stuff “ and “do good ones vastly outnumber the just okay/not good’s”. And by that deeply scientific algorithm, Hounds of Love is most definitely, wholeheartedly and unequivocally a masterpiece.
Album Rating: Hope, 10/10; Matthew, 10/10
The Whole Story (1986)
MATTHEW: (UK #1, Top Ten in four nations, US #76): This is the first of three oranges in our basket of Bush apples, and her only “greatest hits” or singles compilation ever. It was EMI’s (Kate-approved) attempt to capitalize on the global success of Hounds, released 14 months earlier. Packed with eleven previous singles and one new song, it offered 49 powerful minutes—extended to 57 minutes over 13 songs on the (superior) video edition. It’s not surprising, then, that The Whole Story was another UK #1 for Bush, charting well all over the world (aside from the US), becoming—and remaining—her best-selling album. But it’s also not surprising that the album was a relative flop in the US: why, shoppers must have thought, re-buy three hits from Hounds with a bunch of old songs that had fallen on deaf ears in America? Well, buy it for Side One alone, I would have argued: It sequenced “Cloudbusting” and the Hounds title track with a re-sung “Wuthering,” the sublime “Man With the Child,” “Wow,” and “Breathing.” Bliss! Brilliant!
HOPE: The Whole Story is a very good compilation. Like ABBA Gold-level good…but it is still one step short of perfection for me. And not for the persnickety reasons nerdy folks like us tend to have. Yeah, “Wuthering Heights” features a newly recorded vocal, but I can live with that. My issue is the inclusion of The Dreaming, which while interesting in the context of its namesake album, isn’t even one of the top five best songs on that LP. Over the years, people have tended to pile on the previously unreleased new track “Experiment IV” and regularly branded it as Whole’s weak link. But I’ve always found it compelling and still hear it as an enticingly slick ‘n’ sinister sister to “Cloudbusting”.
The Whole Story now feels like the end of an era, the culmination of Kate’s mega-pop years and prelude to her “lost in the wilderness and magical rebirth” era. Which means I can finally throw out this question to you, Matthew ( and all of you reading this!). Now while I’d “read the book” on “Cloudbusting”, and seen the film that inspired “The Infant Kiss” back in the day, there were still a lot of Kate songs that I didn’t know the backstory on, or specific inspiration for, until years later.
So at this transitional juncture, tell me, when it comes to Kate, how important is it to one’s listening experience to know what the songs are specifically about? I’ll give a super-broad example; is it necessary, say, to have read “Wuthering Heights’ or seen any of the filmic adaptations (especially the classic 1939 version) in order to truly enjoy the song “to the max”?
Yes, hearing the backstories of say “Suspended In Gaffa” or “Cloudbusting” as mentioned earlier, made me love and connect with those songs even more. But then again, sometimes it’s cool to let your imagination interpret them in whatever way it involuntarily chooses and not get too fixated on the specifics. We know “Houdini” is about freakin’ Harry and Bess Houdini, but it’s also a gripping, ripping pop song that sounds f*cking amazing even if the listener has no knowledge of the story behind it! Even out of context and standing alone with no explanation, “I’d pass the key and feel your tongue teasing and receiving” is still a smokin’ hot line.
MATTHEW: You are right, Hope, about Side Two. Whether you think “The Dreaming” or “Experiment IV” didn’t deserve a slot (and I’m torn on the issue), the fact of the debate says something. But carping aside, the songs showcase Kate’s extraordinary talent sufficiently well to inspire any listener to move on to her real albums. As for whether it is necessary to know the backgrounds to the songs: not at first, I think. As Bush herself has said, listen and allow yourself to make personal interpretations of each song. But then go ahead and dig out the background stories anyway! The real references won’t make yours redundant; they’ll just add a parallel view (like your reading of “Egypt,” Hope).
Album Rating: Hope, 9/10; Matthew, 8/10
The Sensual World (1989)
MATTHEW: (UK #2, Top Ten in two nations, US #43): By the summer of ‘89, as it approached four years since the last new Bush album, I made a mixtape titled Don’t Give Up. I was probably unaware that a new album was imminent. The tape began with that now-classic duet with Peter Gabriel, and then packed onto a C-90 as many Kate faves as possible, from “Wuthering” to “Experiment IV.” The point being: I was primed to be thrilled by The Sensual World, and thrilled I was. From the up-to-date production of the title track and “Love and Anger” (modest UK hits, U.S. flops) to the delicate beauty of “This Woman’s Work,” the album seemed like a gripping evolution of the Bush sound and vision. It was on heavy rotation in my house and car and Walkman/Discman well into the ‘90s, resisting being supplanted by its ‘93 sequel. Not until the second half of the decade did my CD copy of Sensual World begin to gather dust. And yet . . . even as I continued to play it, I was increasingly aware of its flimsiness compared to Hounds, of it being a collection of songs—some great, some not—rather than a consistently superb and coherent opus.
HOPE: There was a time I believed The Sensual World to be one of Kate’s best albums. It was home to a few songs I genuinely, wholeheartedly, obsessively loved; the tuneful, haunting and pragmatic “Never Be Mine ( my fave), the James Joyce inspired title track with its celebration of the sexy tactile world and iconic “mmh yes” refrain…and my personal dark horse, the bombastic, arms aloft, power-hymn “Reaching Out”. These were the culprits that fueled my inflated regard for The Sensual World for a decade plus. My mind was so clouded with lust for those tracks at the time that it killed my ability to be objective about the rest of the album.
As is often the case with this stuff, time has mellowed my heated love for those songs into what I would now characterize as fond feelings of cozy familiarity (shit, that sounds like a married couple saying “we live as brother and sister now” but yeah that’s how it is these days).
The Sensual World is a product of its time, distractingly slathered in that same slick, grandiose late ‘80s “big pop” production style that typified most superstar albums back then (see Genesis’s Invisible Touch, Peter Gabriel’s So, as well as then-newbies T’Pau’s Bridge Of Spies). “Love and Anger” and ”Heads We’re Dancing” feel utterly faceless as a result.“Rocket’s Tail” is a cacophonous mess. There’s a proto-exotic, epic new age vibe hovering over the whole freakin’ thing and dammit, I just can’t get into Sensual World, the album.
If that weren’t bad enough, I have a problem with “This Woman’s Work”.
I acknowledge its status as a beautiful evergreen classic, I mean it is, but it’s taken on a bit of a “Hallelujah” vibe for me over the years. Maxwell’s exquisite live version from 1997 aside, the glut of straightforward covers of the song that have spilled into the world since then have put me off of it (and yes, it feels inevitable that this will happen with “Running Up That Hill” too). I know this is blasphemous, and it isn’t Kate’s fault but, sigh, I just need some time apart to recultivate my craving to hear it again. Yeah, I’ll go sit in the corner now.
MATTHEW: I’m laughing, but with you not at you, Hope! Even after Aerial inspired me to revisit Kate’s back catalog in-depth, it was the 1978-85 albums with which I immediately reconnected emotionally. “Reaching Out” and “Never Be Mine” are still my favorites on this—perfect mid-period-Kate poignant pop, packing loving punches the way Hounds of Love does—and I’m happy to say that “This Woman’s Work” has yet to suffer the “Hallelujah” effect (although I do fear that, Hope, as I do with “Running Up That Hill”). But in retrospect, the album doesn’t hold together as well as Hounds or Aerial (or, to my ears, Kick Inside or Never For Ever). It still sounds like an evolutionary step, but from Never For Ever rather than from Hounds of Love. In other words, she leap-frogged her sequels, with Sensual World as the sequel to Never For Ever, and then Aerial coming as the twenty-year sequel to Hounds. Does that make sense?
HOPE: I am officially fascinated with that concept. The Sensual World is like a “mature lady” version of Never For Ever. Aerial does sound like the long tail of Hounds.That is spot-on. As an aside, just wanna acknowledge how thrilled I am that we love the same two tracks. Did you know that in Uncut magazine’s Kate Bush edition of their great Ultimate Music Guide series, they said that “Reaching Out” is The Sensual World’s “only misstep”? To which I, no WE, say “bullshit”. “Reaching Out” forever.
Album Rating: Hope, 5/10; Matthew, 6/10
The Red Shoes (1993)
MATTHEW: (UK #2, it’s only Top Ten showing, US #28): Speaking as a fan, but trying to be objective, Kate has never made a bad album. Sure, you say, that’s because she sacrifices quantity for quality. That’s true to some extent, but record stores have plenty of bad albums that took years to make. And there’s no bad Bush—not even a vinyl-side of it. That said, one of the nine original studio albums has to be at the bottom of the ranking pile. In almost every ranking by fans and critics that I’ve seen, the bottom is occupied by either Lionheart (which I’ve defended and love, but I get it), 50 Words for Snow (ditto, as we’ll see), or Red Shoes—and I’m in that last camp. It’s not bad, not even close. And it has some great songs on it. But as an album—and Kate has given us some extraordinary album-length creations—it’s just not as coherent and compelling as, well, all her others.
HOPE: I agree. There are no bad Kate albums. “Disappointing” is the worst insult you would ever have to employ when looking at the lesser lights in the discography. Okay so…The Red Shoes disappoints me. And I hate the idea of this album being the first that a new Kate fan might explore. It’s so unreflective of how f*cking great she is. You can hear the guts of good songs sprinkled throughout, but there’s an oddly unfinished, almost demo-ish quality to a lot of them. It’s crucial to note that Kate was under some serious duress during the recording of the album. Both her mum Hannah and long-time guitarist Alan Murphy had passed in the lead up to its recording and she and long-time partner/band-mate Del Palmer were in the process of splitting up. She was understandably distracted…and you can hear it. The fact that Kate felt the need to re-record half of it’s tracks twenty years later, for the Director’s Cut album (which we’ll get to shortly) kind of says all you need to know about how she feels it turned out.
“Big Stripey Lie” and ”Lily” seem half-realized. “Eat The Music” ( “grab a banana”) is freakin’ terrible and still cannot believe it was chosen as the lead single for the U.S.market. Pseudo-funky “Constellation Of The Heart”, which sounds like Kate trying to do her own version of Lakeside’s “Fantastic Voyage”, means well, but dammit, it just doesn’t work. And I find Eric Clapton’s presence on anything to be supremely intrusive and scenery-chewing in the worst possible way (he guests on “And So Is Love”, another track that sounds half-finished). God, I know that all sounds so negative but there are so many superior Kate albums to get involved in. The Red Shoes should always be the last choice after everything else has been exhausted.
Still, like the mythic tale of Pandora’s box with “hope” stuffed in its deepest corner to counter the mayhem that has spilled out before it, there is one absolutely majestic piece of music on The Red Shoes that offers hope (literally). “Moments Of Pleasure” is one of those songs I carry with me every day and is home to a line that is permanently lodged in my heart and never gonna leave (“Just being alive, it can really hurt”). Runners-up are the simultaneously delicate and ass-kicking “Top Of The City”, the bouncy, boisterous title track and its goofy sonic sibling “Rubberband Girl”.
MATTHEW: When Red Shoes came out, I blamed myself. Instead of thinking, what a shame, Kate’s finally made a weak album, I thought, oh I’ve finally failed to fall in love with a Kate album. My reaction was partly a symptom of my fandom (assuming she could do no wrong). But it also reflected the ease with which I was distracted by the new music of the ‘90s—the last decade in which music fashion shifted dramatically from genre to genre, almost year to year. There seemed to be so much that was new on both sides of the Atlantic, and I was keen to keep up. So, I assumed that new albums by acts that I had loved in the ‘80s or earlier were probably good, but they’d have to wait until I had exhausted all the great new ‘90s sounds. In some cases that was true (I prefer ‘90s to ‘80s U2 and REM, for example). But there were also disappointments: Dire Straits, Genesis, Macca, and . . . Kate.
Album Rating: Hope, 4/10; Matthew, 5/10
MATTHEW: (UK #3, Top Ten in five nations, US #48): Coming twenty years after Hounds of Love, with two other albums in between, Aerial is the real successor to Hounds. Both are concept albums, pairing halves that make the albums whole but also stand as separate works (with their own titles). They are sibling progressive pop masterpieces, Bush’s most extraordinary achievements. At 80”, Aerial is almost twice as long, it’s two halves given their own discs (vinyl or CD). It is less intense and more subtle than Hounds, reflecting its creator’s age (47 instead of 27), with Aerial less full of fables and more personal than the earlier album. Kate is now a mother (“Bertie”) and has lost her own mother (the exquisite “A Coral Room”). In fact, I see the first disc (titled “A Sea of Honey”) as a concept album about family, as coherently drawn as the other disc (“A Sky of Honey”), which is a concept album about Nature’s cycle of day and night—the triumphant culmination of Bush’s career-long contributions to English pastoralism, its closing trio of tracks (“Somewhere in Between,” “Nocturn,” and “Aerial”) among the best 21 minutes of her entire catalog.
HOPE: Aerial is not meant to excite but rather to soothe and caress. It meanders and wanders. The average track length is 5 minutes. There’s a comforting sonic saminess to the songs and they all kind of blend into one another. It is the “chillest” Kate album. And while there isn’t an outright, obvious superstar song present, the standard and quality is high. It is also, and I feel like dirt saying this, too long. And so Aerial has always been a bit of a cherry-picking experience for me. Slinky, groovy “Nocturn” and epically evocative “A Coral Room” are the only two deep cuts I revisit on a regular basis (they are both capital G gorgeous). “Sunset” is also jazzily handsome and reasonably groovy in parts. The album’s most hummable, poppified track “King Of The Mountain”, with its visions of Elvis whooshing down a snowy hill on the “Rosebud” sled of Citizen Kane fame, possesses a subtly delicious melodic menace reminiscent of “Experiment IV”. But those songs are the exceptions. Tracks like “Prologue” and “Somewhere In Between” are far more representative of the overall vibe of the album; they are watercolor paintings, lovely to be sure, but oddly distant and hard to latch onto. Shit, was that too mean ?
MATTHEW: Not mean, just how you hear it; I’m fascinated by our different reactions to Kate’s two 21st-century albums, with Aerial resonating with me that way 50 Words For Snow does with you. For me, the “Sky of Honey” disc needs every one of its minutes as it slowly builds to the psychedelic groove of the title track. But I do see how the first disc might seem a tad long. Although I am always irritated by the gendered criticism of tracks like “Mrs Bartolozzi”—that is, men dismissing the apparent banal domesticity of the lyrics. As Caitlin Moran recently noted, men can write cool songs about utterly mundane moments, but a woman singing about a washing machine prompts snide sniggers. Besides, “Mrs Bartolozzi” is about far more than washing clothes. Like most Bush songs, it is layered with narratives that are both personal and metaphorical. When Kate seems simple or silly, she’s deceptively so; to miss that is simply to be deceived.
HOPE: I really do like Aerial, I swear.
Album Rating: Hope, 7/10; Matthew, 9/10
Director’s Cut (2011)
MATTHEW: (UK #2, Top Ten in three nations, did not chart in the US): This one divides fans more than any of the “regular” studio albums; in fact, it may be the only Kate album that is truly divisive. I confess I ignored it in 2011, after reading some dismissive reviews. And because I was generally suspicious of the whole concept (after all, considering Kate’s control over the entire composing and recording process of the original albums, weren’t they all “director’s cuts”?) (I know I am far from the first person to make that observation). But then Before the Dawn inspired me to listen to Director’s Cut with an open mind. And . . . well, over to you, Hope.
HOPE: It’s telling that Director’s Cut is made up solely of re-recorded tracks from The Sensual World and The Red Shoes. Neither album could be categorized as Kate’s finest work. The former was preceded by an impossible to compete with masterpiece. The latter was recorded in the wake of some extreme personal challenges that Kate herself has said affected her ability to focus. And while there are a handful of beautiful tracks on both, as noted earlier, there were also a bunch that were suffocated by hefty, of-their-time production stylings. Director’s Cut is Kate acknowledging that things didn’t turn out quite the way she wanted on those albums. She was magnanimous in her explanation about why she recorded Director’s Cut, saying in a 2011 interview with The Guardian, “For some time I have felt that I wanted to revisit tracks from these two albums and that they could benefit from having new life breathed into them”. But while she’s not being outright negative, there is a hint of dissatisfaction in there; it sounds as if she wasn’t happy with the original recordings.
So you can understand the pull of this project for her. And to be honest, when I first heard about it, I was kind of psyched. I assumed she would approach it in a straight-up unplugged fashion and just strip away all the noise so each song’s beauty could finally shine through. A cliched assumption, but yeah. Sadly that wasn’t what Director’s Cut turned out to be. It was an album of “alternative versions” as in, the new recordings weren’t better, they were just different. What complicated things for me was that three of my absolute favorite deep cuts got the redux treatment and I thought they were pretty damn wonderful to begin with (“Never Be Mine”,“Moments Of Pleasure”, “Top Of The City”). Yes, I like the new arrangement of “Moments”, its sparsity, the subtle, sporadic choral backing, the piano (swoon) but in no way does it top the over-the-top drama of the original.
MATTHEW: You are right that we should all get a second chance, and in my non-music writing I stress the importance of being open to changing one’s opinion (boring biographical aside: when I’m not deep diving into the pop music ocean with Hope, I teach and write on the history of Latin America—often getting things wrong the first time). So, Kate had the right to make this album, and I’m glad she did. That said, I find it to be no more than a curiosity, as interesting and important (or not) as might be B-sides, demos, and rejected studio recordings (of which Kate has given fans precious few over the decades). For my tastes, not a single track replaces its original. Maybe Kate never intended them to be replacements?
HOPE: Yeah, in retrospect, I don’t think these new versions were meant to “replace” anything. This whole endeavor seems really personal, like the execution of certain old songs had been niggling at her for a while. This is no McCartney-Let It be Naked scenario, where he was looking to “correct” history by editing off all of producer Phil Spector’s embellishments i.e. the stuff he didn’t like. No, Director’s Cut feels more like perfectionism gone slightly off the rails. Kate is renowned for not rushing, for molding and shaping every release down to the finest detail before she presents it to the world. The assumption is that nothing leaves the pen until all her artistic standards have been met. That is why this album at first seemed so out of character. That she would feel the need to re-record established tracks seemed to go against the Kate ethos we have come to know.
Album Rating: Hope, 5/10; Matthew, 4/10
50 Words For Snow (2011)
MATTHEW: (UK #5, Top Ten in three nations, US #83): I remember hearing or reading something in 2011 about a new Kate Bush album that was a rehash of older work, and picked this up, expecting some version of what I’d later realize was Director’s Cut. Instead, having come home and popped this in the CD player, I stood in my kitchen stunned. The album was all one had come to expect of Kate creations—surprising, inventive, kooky, beautiful. I had somehow assumed that Aerial was the end. Her last gift. So that made this feel all the more like an unexpected holiday-season present.
HOPE: For me, the best bits of seasonal art are the ones with a hint of melancholia running through their veins. For example, the lovely animated holiday specials A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Snowman. These sweet cartoons, beloved by generations, are built on solid foundations of depression and death (both expressed rather elegantly, it should be said). While wintery-themed masterpiece 50 Words For Snow may not be an actual Christmas album, its Dark December™ vibe is very much aligned with those two TV classics. It’s all Victorian ghosts, misunderstood Yeti’s, and horny snowmen without a sniff of joyful tidings. It is also my favorite Kate album, though its rise to the top was a gradual one.
At first I didn’t care for the title track or “Wild Man”, the two noisiest tunes. Surrounded by several of Kate’s finest and most regal ballads, they sounded like novelty songs (the former with its Stephen Fry guest vocal, the latter with its quirky subject manner and cartoonish-sounding chorus). But over time, they wore me down and I began to appreciate their sticky, weirdo charm. They are the court-jesters, perfectly tempering the tear-jerkers that dominate the album. The ballads—“Among Angels”, “Lake Tahoe”, “Snowflake”— rank among Kate’s finest and are as heartbreaking, evocative and empathetic as anything she’s ever recorded. “Among Angels” feels like a long-lost sister song to the Hounds Of Love classic “And Dream Of Sheep”. “Lake Tahoe” haunts us (its dog-themed verses are positively lethal if you are feeling a bit tender) while “Snowflake” hugs us (and features an eerie-beautiful cameo by Kate’s son Bertie). All three of these songs have made me cry on multiple occasions ( and maybe you too, my fellow sensitive plants). I know some people don’t dig “Snowed In At Wheeler Street” which features Elton John at his most blustery-beautiful, but I love all that “two souls endlessly meeting up-getting thwarted-time-travel” shit and would gladly take a whole album that revolved around that theme.
The album’s centerpiece is “Misty”, the lushly-piano’ed, brushily-drummed 13-minute mini-marathon of messy-hot sex with a snowman (spoiler alert: after the passion has concluded, he melts, leaving not only the requisite wet spot but clumps of branches, mud and grass as well. He’s one dirty, dirty snowman). Kate did a great interview after the album’s release on the BBC Radio 4 show Front Row and though I insist you actually listen to it (here!), I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite bit in it right now. When they get to chatting about “Misty”, host John Wilson states that he saw the song’s main character as “a purely symbolic snowman”. This triggers an exceptionally hilarious comeback from Kate who says, with what sounds like it was accompanied by an affectionate eye-roll, “NO John, HE’S REAL!”. She then goes on to talk about how much she loves snowmen (“I love snowmen!”) and reuses the same plastic hat every year for the family snowman building sessions. On paper, a 13-minute song can look like a slog, but for me “Misty” feels like it’s over in a heartbeat. “HE’S REAL!”
I only listen to Kate Bush when I’m alone (is this weird?). I think this is the reason I’ve always felt discombobulated any time I’ve heard any of her songs playing in a public space i.e. outside my headphones (is this weird?). Apart from an actual Kate show, listening to her in a crowded room feels at odds with the whole experience and notion of Kate Bush for me. It would feel extremely discomfiting to hear, say, “Misty” blaring from a shop soundsystem. Not because of the song’s subject matter but because my relationship to Kate’s music is kind of private and personal (and I imagine this is the case with multitudes of fans). And 50 Words For Snow is the album that I feel the deepest connection to these days, my #1 musical rock to cling to when, to paraphrase “Snowflake”, the world feels too loud. Perfect.
MATTHEW: This is definitely a headphone album, Hope; as Aerial and most of its predecessors were, but in the case of Snow, the reason is less about production and more about intimacy. Of all Kate’s albums, this one comes by far the closest to creating the illusion that you’re in her home studio, listening to her and her band playing—while snow falls gently on her garden. So no, Hope, it’s not weird to listen to it only when alone.
The closing track, “Among Angels,” is my favorite song on here, and I usually play it as the first track: it somehow draws me more fully in than “Snowflake.” I confess that “Misty” sometimes feels too long, and I need to be in the mood for the title track (although I love to confuse or annoy friends and family by putting it on “Christmas” playlists). But my appreciation for it has grown over the years, and I can see how Snow could slowly become a Desert Island disc, essential to the feeding of the soul with select musical creations. Until, perhaps, she gives us one more surprise gift…
Album Rating: Hope, 10/10; Matthew, 8/10
Before The Dawn (2016)
MATTHEW: (UK #4, it’s only Top Ten showing, US #121): We all respect Kate’s refusal to be commodified and peddled as another product by a cynical and exploitative industry. The fact that she is a woman maintaining such creative and commercial control—considering how deeply the music industry has been male-dominated and sexist—makes her all the more admirable and important. But there’s an awkward irony here: we are so used to artists being exploited, to getting what we want from them, to demanding more, that we cannot help but get frustrated by Kate’s parsimony. She was so traumatized by the experience of her 1979 tour, she refused to tour—or even give a single full concert—until 2014. Whaaat?! That should have been career suicide—or at the very least the permanent closing of the US market. But Hounds of Love proved that law could be broken. If you’re Kate Bush, that is. So, Americans got to know her work anyway, and we all had our adult lives (or 35 years of them) to get used to not seeing her live. Then when she broke the drought with an elaborate, theatrical live show reminiscent of the now-legendary ‘79 concerts, she did it with a limited run at London’s Hammersmith Apollo (no tour, no traveling—she could be home every night). No photos or videos allowed, and no shows were filmed. Aaaaargh! But if Kate never gives us enough, she eventually gives us something (she never completely retires, as her late friend Mark Hollis did). So we must be grateful for the wonderfully raw recording of the 2014 Hammersmith show, even if we must combine this rare jewel of a live album with our imaginations in order to transport ourselves into her performing presence.
HOPE: Yes to all of the above. I suspect this album holds a lot more meaning and intrigue for the blessed folks that did see her than it ever will for me, who sadly did not. When I listen to Before The Dawn, I don’t so much get the sensation of “being there” but rather feel like I am missing something. It wasn’t a concert but a genuine theatrical production and so a recording of the sounds is only gonna go so far in terms of capturing its power and beauty (which I only surmised from still pictures and reviews, like you Matthew). I love how you characterize the recording as “raw”, which is such an odd and contradictory notion to apply to a Kate album, but it’s true! That’s not to say it’s sloppy, it is after all, an extremely well-planned piece of musical theater, but there are a couple of wobbly vocal passages in there. That said, I absolutely adore the live ‘n’ faithful reading of “Among Angels” on Before The Dawn. I know for a fact I would’ve have been crying f*cking buckets if I’d seen this live.
Look, I can’t imagine how thrilling it must have been to hear those first bars of “Cloudbusting” or “Running Up That Hill” or “Hounds Of Love” at this show or at any of the others during the residency. I mean even I got a little physical rush when I heard their opening notes on the freakin’ CD (yes CD), so it must have been transcendently powerful to actually experience it live. But once you get past that tiny thrill, something is lost in the translation, in other words, to really appreciate this album it feels like you kind of had to be there. Thus Before The Dawn is a handsome souvenir, especially sweet for those who were present, but for the rest of us, merely a nice addition to the discography and nothing more. I do wonder if I would like this album better if the setlist had featured at least a few tracks off the first four albums. She doesn’t go back any further than the Hounds album and it’s a little bit heavy on the Aerial for me. Oh hell, Aerial, I’m doing it again and I’m sorry.
Buddha said, “He who envies others does not obtain peace of mind”. True.
MATTHEW: You articulated well why I’m also ranking this in the bottom quartile. I seldom listen to it because my response is always bitter-sweet: I’m grateful for this record of the concerts, but I resent how it reminds me of what I missed—not just these rare shows but the decades of performances that never happened. Unfair, I know. We are not entitled to anything—not one minute or pixel—that Kate doesn’t choose to give us. But, still. And I agree that while I love how she offers live versions of basically all of “The Ninth Wave” and “A Sky of Honey”—which I think are prog pop masterworks that will steadily enhance her reputation for many decades to come—I too would have relished her 2010s interpretation of some of her 1978-82 material. Are we being petulant and unreasonable? Maybe I am. After all, three quarters of Before The Dawn comprises renditions of the concept albums about which I have raved!
HOPE: I don’t think anyone, no matter how hardcore a fan they are, should be too hard on themselves for not loving Before The Dawn. Live albums are traditionally pretty mixed bags, no matter how genius the artist is. The coolest thing is always gonna be that she did the damn shows in the first place and that a whole bunch of lucky, longtime fans got to see her in their lifetime. At the end of the day, this album is just a postcard to all of us unfortunate souls who didn’t get to see her that says “Having a great time, wish you were here!”
Album Rating: Hope, 5/10; Matthew, 6/10
Box Sets, EPs & Other Compilations
HOPE: Outside of the main discography we’ve just broken down, are there any essentials among the box sets, EP’s and the one latter-day compilation? The answer is…sort of. In other words, it’s cherry-picking time. The two most notable titles amongst the second-tier KB releases are the 1990 out-of-print box set, This Woman’s Work (featuring the first six albums plus two discs of rarities) and 2019’s The Other Sides, a 4-CD compilation of 12” mixes, B-sides and covers (first released in 2018 as part of the Remastered box sets that I know you have, Matthew). The only reason I bought This Woman’s Work—which was a very expensive box featuring six albums I already freakin’ had,—was to acquire those two rarities discs, upon which lived three particularly coveted and fabulous old B-Sides: the anthemic “Not This Time”, the shimmery ‘n’ soulful “Walk Straight Down The Middle” and tiny beauty “Under The Ivy”. Not to mention, it featured the propulsively pop-tastic “Be Kind To My Mistakes” (KB’s contribution to the Castaway film soundtrack). As I pretty much listened to those tracks to the exclusion of everything else and roughly paid $150 for the box, I figure the individual cost of each of the four songs I like to be around $40 apiece. Sure, they can make your heart race with their hot exteriors, and fancy track listings, but make no mistake, box sets make a lot of promises they can’t keep and are mostly absolute bastards.
As This Woman’s Work only covers the first half of her career and recorded output it is, as of this century, an outdated but collectible Kate Bush starter kit. Its “must-have” status has been seriously diminished by the fact that most of the tracks featured on the rarities discs have since turned up on The Other Sides, the similarly-themed, affordable and more readily available curio collection. Please note, the key word here is “most”.
Despite featuring a hefty 34 tracks,The Other Sides isn’t a comprehensive collection. It is selective. Amongst the missing are a handful of extended versions, several B-sides, and the nutso-comic-cool straggler “Ken” (listen here). The most egregious exclusion for me is “Not This Time”, which I regard as a cruel and criminal gesture. I mean if you’re gonna do something like this, why not gather all the scraps once and for all? The collection also features a disc devoted to the covers Kate’s done over the years. Despite her immense gifts, Kate hasn’t been what one might call “a master of reinterpretation”. Her cover attempts have always fallen a bit flat for me (she being someone who gets covered as opposed to someone who does covers). I especially dislike and resent the unnecessarily jaunty, faux-reggae version of “Rocket Man”. Not only because of what it sounds like, but because of what it could have been (in my head, it’s a slow, sad, and regal ballad with just Kate and her piano).
Lastly, I want to acknowledge the self-titled EP from 1983. It was a 5-song sampler containing a few old singles plus a couple of obscurities and was only issued in the U.S. and Canada. It is not a remotely important release within the discography. Kate herself wasn’t nuts about the track selection. But as it was my official introduction to Kate’s music, I have some irrational and overly sentimental feelings about it. I got it for Xmas in 1983 after an official but oddly vague request for a “Kate Bush album” on my “what I want” list. When Xmas morning arrived I discovered that my Mom had taken a shortcut and had not purchased an album, but rather, this EP instead. I feel like the guy at the record store showed her what they had, and instead of rummaging through the bin herself, she just said “give me the cheapest one” (love you, Mom). And so it ‘twas, that on December 25th of 1983, I acquired my first Kate Bush record and heard my very first Kate Bush song, which was, blessedly, “Babooshka”. Needless to say, I was completely blown away and we’ve been “together” ever since. Yes, it is a bullshit EP put together by a bunch of record company suits— albeit it one with a great bug-eyed still from the “Babooshka” video on the cover—but it’s always gonna have a place in my heart (and yes, I still have it).
MATTHEW: I’m laughing (but again with you, Hope) over your annoyed calculations of the effective cost of those extra tracks on This Woman’s Work. Forgive my smugness: I’ve made similar purchases countless times, but not that particular one. Instead, I taped the tracks on the rarities discs (I have no idea who from). But looking at the tape now, I see I made my own selection, adding “Rocket Man” (which dates from a year later, and whose unpredictably jaunty tone I like more than you do!), and omitting such tracks as . . . wait for it . . . “Not This Time” (I’ve no idea why, Hope, please don’t condemn me for such criminality!).
My punishment is that the song is indeed wonderful, and is indeed excluded from The Other Sides, for which I essentially paid a hundred bucks, as I bought both the 2018 box sets, Remastered Part I (the seven 20th-century albums, Kick to Shoes) and Remastered Part II (the 21st-century albums, Aerial to Dawn, plus the 4-CD Other Sides). I know some fans were miffed that they bought the box set just for the Other Sides discs, only to see them released separately the following year. I love having the full Kate catalog in two boxes, even if I already had most of it in various formats, but I do understand the grounds for such annoyance. And I totally agree that the failure to make The Other Sides comprehensive—I think just one more CD would have rounded up “Not This Time” and other missing rarities, right?—is lamentable and bizarre. All that aside, the box set pair is a warmly recommended treasure trove.
In Conclusion: I Don’t Know Why I’m Crying
MATTHEW: It has always been hard to describe what Kate has achieved and why it matters, and that is partly because she is a unique talent (as Sparks’ Russell Mael put it, she established her own world, and stayed true to it). But I also think that gender plays a crucial role here, one often given lip service (e.g., the frequent observation in the summer of 2022 that she’s now the oldest woman to have a UK #1 single), but not fully considered. When Aerial came out, a (female) critic in The Observer challenged her male colleagues to admit that Bush is a genius, calling the album “arguably, the most female album in the world, ever.” One might argue that she’s the most female artist, ever. Genius she certainly is. And I don’t mean that she is an incredibly talented artist as (or for) a woman, nor that she is a genius who just happens to be a woman; rather, Kate Bush is a genius whose gender has been elemental to the unique world that she created and to which she has kept true. As such, she is far more than just a creator of endlessly fascinating, inventive, and joyful music; she is also one of the most important artists of our music era.
HOPE: Before Kate Bush infiltrated my world in the early ’80s, I didn’t actively listen to women artists. I enjoyed a little Plasmatics and Aretha on occasion, but most of the spots on my childhood and early teen playlists were occupied by boys I could moon over (and, uh, Phil Collins). What was it about Kate specifically that permanently disengaged my hormone-based bias and woke me up forever? I loved the songs of course but looking back, I think I was equally infatuated with the female fearlessness on display. It felt like she didn’t care if anyone thought she was silly or laughed at her over-the-top performance style. She expressed herself with no restraint, no apologies, and no compromises. I coveted her confidence and the absolute conviction she seemed to have in her art.
If you are remotely “outside the norm” or otherly in any way, this brand of boldness is gonna strike a chord with you. God knows it did with me. Kate Bush made songs that celebrated her most personal, idiosyncratic obsessions and shared them proudly and loudly with everyone. She didn’t chase airplay or look to optimize sales potential, she just followed her cast of muses, from rainmakers to washing machines to sexy snowmen, wherever they led. She took as long as she needed to record albums. She toured only when it felt right. She made adventurous, beautiful, funny, weird, and heartbreaking music that sounded like no one else’s, all while delivering a hard kick to the nuts of musical convention. Kate Bush is a beacon (a little light shining), for all the world’s “others”and dreamers (and maybe all of us), a little reminder to let your freak flag fly and not be afraid to be your weird-ass self no matter what anyone thinks. A genius for sure and so much more.
Our Album Rankings!
1.Hounds of Love 10/10
3.The Kick Inside 9/10
4.Never For Ever 9/10
5.50 Words For Snow 8/10
6.The Whole Story 8/10
7.The Dreaming 7/10
9.The Sensual World 6/10
10. Before the Dawn 6/10
11.The Red Shoes 5/10
12.Director’s Cut 4/10
1. 50 Words For Snow 10/10
2. Hounds Of Love 10/10
3.The Dreaming 9/10
4.Never For Ever 9/10
5. The Whole Story 9/10
6. Aerial 7/10
7. The Kick Inside 6/10
8. The Sensual World 5/10
10. Before the Dawn 5/10
11.Director’s Cut 5/10
12.The Red Shoes 4/10
The Whole Story Re-imagined!
MATTHEW: Instead of just picking our favorite ten or so Kate songs, we decided to imagine a 2022 version of The Whole Story—but as a double album, with as many tracks as we can each sequence onto four imaginary sides of vinyl, with a max total of 90 minutes.
My updated and personal version of The Whole Story has the terribly predictable title of This Woman’s Work. I passed over some longer tracks (e.g., from Snow), and avoided all live, B-side, and cover versions, in order to cram these 21 favorites at 88 minutes onto my double album:
Side One (21:03): Hounds of Love, Babooshka, King of the Mountain, Wow, The Man With the Child in His Eyes, Reaching Out.
Side Two (23:08): Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God), Breathing, Cloudbusting, Wuthering Heights, And Dream of Sheep.
Side Three (23:17): Under Ice, How To Be Invisible, Sat in Your Lap, Moments of Pleasure, Among Angels.
Side Four (20:21): Symphony in Blue, Somewhere In Between, Never Be Mine, All the Love, This Woman’s Work.
HOPE: The title of my revised version of The Whole Story is an absolute cliche but it feels so right to me. Now because I am a former record store employee, while brainstorming a title, I imagined scenarios of customers asking for the album as well as seeing its name listed on our printed charts (I also envisioned an exquisite album sleeve and no it did not involve a sheep I swear). And with that, may I now introduce you to Moments Of Pleasure. It features 23 songs consisting of the required pieces and some deserving dark horses and is sequenced like Matthew’s above i.e. as a double vinyl album. And much as I’d love to have included “Misty” or “Nocturn” they are just a bit too long to sit comfortably here. And yes I went two minutes over the 90 minute limit and so I humbly ask that you cut me some slack (Matthew):
Side One (20:00): Wuthering Heights, Breathing, Houdini, And Dream Of Sheep, The Man With The Child In His Eyes.
Side Two (22:00): Hounds Of Love, Suspended In Gaffa, Babooshka, All The Love, Army Dreamers, This Woman’s Work.
Side Three (27:00): Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God), Never Be Mine, Be Kind To My Mistakes, King Of The Mountain, Among Angels, Reaching Out.
Side Four (23:00): Moments Of Pleasure, Not This Time, The Sensual World, Walk Straight Down The Middle, One Last Look Around The House, Cloudbusting.
We’d like to offer heartfelt thanks to each and every one of you who joined us on this discographic journey. We think you’re unbelievable and incredible ❤️ Keep breathing…