It's been 12 years. I know every review in the world for Aerial starts by pointing this out, but it really does need to be stated. 12 long years since 1993's The Red Shoes. That's a pretty long time in the music business. Hell, the media gets impatient these days if a band doesn't release anything for 2 years, let alone 12. Note how, no doubt, the next Strokes album will be labelled a 'comeback', despite the fact that they haven't actually gone anywhere.
So what of Kate Bush? Aerial amounts to 2005's biggest genuine comeback (save, perhaps, Kraftwerk's Minimum-Maximum); not just that, but it's one of the year's most anticipated releases. Kate's stock have never been higher - aside from The Futureheads taking "Hounds Of Love" into the Top 10 for a second time and stating Kate as a major influence, plenty of other artists have gone on record speaking of their love for her. People like Alison Goldfrapp and Bjork probably didn't surprise anyone when they said this, but what about Outkast's Big Boi? He's the NORMAL one in that duo. You'd expect Andre 3000 to love kate Bush, just because he's like that. But Big Boi? He's basically a typical rapper. If it weren't for association with Andre, it'd be like imagining 50 Cent singing along to "The Man With The Child In His Eyes" while doing the washing up. A not entirely unattractive image, I'm sure you'll agree.
Aerial was a pretty secretive project until just before it was released, which is odd considering just what a star Bush has been in the past (and, in a lot of ways, still is). But, in November, the details were laid bare. A double album, one side containing a handful of typical off-centre pop songs, one side containing an ambitious song cycle.
As a general rule, I don't like double albums. I simply don't think any more than a handful of artists can sustain the necessary consistency for a good album over more than 80 minutes. Stevie Wonder managed it, sure, but when the Foo Fighters start trying it, you know you're in for a disappointment. Even so, I won't lie - I was looking forward to this more than any other album this year. I'm not the only one I know, either.
The first single, "King Of The Mountain", raised (my/our) expectations further. If anyone was expecting Kate to have lost her touch in the 12 years she's been gone, they were to be sorely disappointed - this tune is vintage Bush. A quivering, half-mumbled vocal (in homage to Elvis, presumably) set over inventive drums, and later, a dry-as-hell guitar part that almost forces the song into reggae territory.
But, from there, A Sea Of Honey, the pop side, goes a little haywire. I've defended Kate time and time again over the years when people have called her out for being too weird, but even I cannot deny that "À" is completely and utterly batshit. Musically, it's quite nice, but you can't get around the fact that this is a song about a man who likes maths. And yes, Kate sings Pi - TO 112 DECIMAL PLACES. Weirdest song of the year? Other Kate fanatics have tried to defend this track by claiming it as proof that she could sing the phonebook and make it sound good, or that it's intended as to poke fun at people who've said that in the past. But, given that it's neither funny nor particularly impressive, I'm going to dismiss this track as a failed experiment.
The rest of the album does, bar one track, recover and maintain consistency. You've got the bluesy, almost Fleetwood Mac-esque "How To Be Invisible", an enjoyable tune with a real groove to it, and more reggae-flecked guitars, and the totally electronic "Joanni", which focuses on the Joan of Arc and boasts one of Kate's best melodies, as well as one of the record's funniest moments - Kate singing in a bizarre imitation of a deep, tribal war cry. Both of those are highlights, but then you've got "Bertie", a song dedicated to her son. It's nice enough as background music, but it errs on the wrong side of boring, and it's certainly not as touching as she'd have imagined. In fact, it reveals a potential chink in Kate's armour - the album's only song that doesn't follow a concept of some sort is probably its worst. The bottom line is that an artist as compelling and unique as Kate should never be responsible for boring, background music. on those grounds, "Bertie" is another failure.
And then there's the apparent centerpiece, "Mrs. Bartolozzi". On the surface, this might have been as mad as "À" (the chorus consists of little more than the words 'washing machine'), but the dark, intimate piano suggests there's more to it than that. On closer inspection, there is - the song reveals itself to be about a trapped and disaffected housewife, pining for excitement in her life. At the start of the second verse, the washing machine itself turns into something else in her head.
I watched them go round and round
My blouse wrapping itself in your shirt
Oh the waves are going out
My skirt floating up around my waist
As I wade out into the surf
Oh and the waves are coming in
Oh and the waves are going out
Oh and you're standing right behind me
Little fish swim between my legs
It's a simple concept, executed simply, but I'll be damned if it's not effective.
Then, almost inevitably, Kate goes and finishes this first disc with the best song on the album - in fact, one of her best songs ever. "A Coral Room" is a song Kate seriously considering not releasing - it deals with the death of her mother. We can be glad she did. To begin with, she speaks in an abstract way, describing an abandoned city, before apparently touching briefly on the events of 9/11. Then, it gives way to Kate speaking as directly as she ever has in her entire career. The words 'my mother' appear to hang, haunting, in the air for just a moment, as the piano stops in sympathetic mourning. But then, as soon as the moment appears, it goes, as Kate forges on. 'I hear her laughing/She is standing in the kitchen/As we come in the back door...' This has got to be Kate's most open, confessional song ever, highlighted by the music (just her and her piano - it may have come about 14 years after Little Earthquakes, but this track highlights just what an influence Kate was on Tori Amos).
So, for disc 1, Kate's in fine form, if a little uneasy on the issue of quality control. On 7 songs, two are pretty bad, three are pretty good, one is great, and one is fantastic. That's alright going for a single disc, especially when you're dealing with an artist who remains unrivalled at what she does. So how does A Sky Of Honey fare?
I'll be plain - this is the best single disc of Kate's career.
Though there's 9 songs on this disc, it's effectively all one song. Kate's obviously making no attempt to distance this album from comparisons to her masterpiece, Hounds Of Love - that, too, was split into a side of pop songs and a side containing one long, conceptual piece. Hounds Of Love's piece, The Ninth Wave, was a fantastic piece of work, but this actually trumps it - just.
The story it follows is one that, depending on your view, runs over the course of 24 hours, or an entire lifetime. To tell the truth, it was probably intended just to tell a day in the life, but the spectre of death rises undeniably on the title track.
The dawn has come
And the wine will run
And the song must be sung
And the flowers are melting
In the sun
I feel I want to be up on the roof
I feel I gotta get up on the roof
Up, up on the roof
Up, up on the roof
"Sunset", too, has an air of finality about it (Every sleepy light/Must say goodbye/To the day before it dies), even though it's got an air of sensuality and sex, too (Whose shadow, long and low/Is slipping out of wet clothes?). Musically, incidentally, this is one of Kate's best songs ever - a smooth jazz bassline, laid-back piano and simple brushed drums are eventually joined by some great flamenco guitar and maracas. Hey, if you're gonna paint a picture of a sunset, at least set it in a part of the world that has famously beautiful sunsets, right?
Both "Prelude" and "Aerial Tal" see Kate singing birdsong, and actually pulling it off. In fact, the latter is a minute long and basically features nothing apart from Kate singing alone with a blackbird. It's startling, yet incredibly effective. You know what else should be hilarious, but somehow works perfectly? Rolf Harris. Yup, one of the most inherently hilarious people in existence crops up on A Sky Of Honey, doing what he does best - painting and playing didgeridoo. Quite how, I don't know, but he actually feels like the perfect choice for the voiceover on "An Architect's Dream". He SINGS on "The Painter's Link", too. Quite what the painter and his painting are an allegory for is a debate you could have for weeks - though, of course, they may be very literal constructions.
So, A Sky Of Honey. Musically amazing, conceptually powerful, sung with conviction and grace, arranged with care and experience, daringly experimental, and genuinely moving. Her most diverse, accomplished, and impressive music yet. In short: a masterpiece. Are we clear? Good.
To compare Aerial to Hounds Of Love (and we must, let's not doubt that), Aerial comes up second best. Though Aerial has the better of Hounds Of Love when it comes to A Sky Of Honey vs The Ninth Wave, Hounds Of Love comes out on top because the first half of Hounds ("Running Up That Hill", "Hounds Of Love", "The Big Sky", "And Dream Of Sheep", "Cloudbusting", "Mother Stands For Comfort") represent an artistic and commercial peak that Kate is unlikely to ever top. And while Aerial does have one brilliant, timeless pop song in "A Coral Room", Hounds Of Love has at least 4.
Still, that doesn't reflect all that badly on Aerial. Hounds Of Love is, after all, one of the greatest albums of all time in my eyes, so to say Aerial even competes with it is a compliment in itself; to say it comes close to matching it is high praise indeed.
Welcome back, Kate. We missed you.
A Sea Of Honey
Within The Genre - 3.5/5
Outside The Genre - 3.5/5
A Sky Of Honey
Within The Genre - 5/5
Outside The Genre - 4.5/5
Recommended Downloads -
King Of The Mountain
A Coral Room
Kate Bush - Hounds Of Love
Talk Talk - Spirit Of Eden
Cocteau Twins - Treasure