Review Summary: An important and exhilarating - though not flawless - live album by an artist who had been communicating through recorded music for 35 years.
Let's start of with the following: I have been extremely lucky to actually attend Kate Bush's now already legendary 2014 residency in London, so I might have a slight bias in favour of this monumental (well, yes: 3CD, 154 minutes long) live-album. But not only did Before the Dawn
work as a theatrical, interdisciplinary extravaganza; it succeeded in its ambition to showcase this woman's back catalogue live, and do so vibrantly.
What we're left with on the Before the Dawn
live album is a bit difficult to define. On the one hand, it's the aural residue of a thoroughly thought out three-hour concert which featured a band of seven, a chorus of five, two independent decors, a puppet, well-meant but occasionally clumsy theatrical interludes, video projections with which the action on stage would interact and a pine tree penetrating a piano. On the other, it's the aural amping-up of Bush's carefully crafted and sometimes understated album Aerial
from 2005, the refurbishing of her youthful Hounds of Love
album and a look inside the latter-day artist's work even more revealing than 2011's Director's Cut
Before the Dawn
is divided up into three acts. The first is a set of largely unrelated songs which Bush pulls off in an idiosyncratically conventional rock band style. Distortion guitars, pronounced basslines and some synthesizers lend a no-nonsense air to songs like 'Lily', whose original was draped in slightly overproduced layers of synth; 'Joanni', which in its original version was so slight it slipped by almost unnoticedly, and 'King of the Mountain', which turns from a 6-minute pop song with a hint of funk into a stadium-proof rocker. A first real highlight comes with 'Top of the City', which is raucuously sung by Bush, backed up beautifully by the soulful chorus. It alludes to a riff from her 1985 hit 'Cloudbusting', the first sign of Bush trying different ways of tying the show together.
The 39 minutes of the first act come adorned with a darker but unfortunately also staler version of 1985's 'Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)' and a wistful ballad recorded during rehearsals but cut for time reasons from the final show. Her vocals are mostly great, and it speaks for her that she chose not to polish the best of the recordings she had from the residency. On 'Hounds of Love' she occasionally slips, and sometimes her lower register sounds a tad uncertain, but it lends the music its flesh-and-blood quality, a humanity seldom heard on more polished live albums.
The second act is dedicated entirely to the B-side of 1985's Hounds of Love
, entitled 'The Ninth Wave'. It tells the - originally pretty opaque - story of a woman lost at sea, trying not to slip out of consciousness and drown in a more concrete, understandable manner than the original outing. With it come pre-recorded segments of an astronomer warning the coast guard that a ship is going down, an on-camera recording of Bush performing a perfect version of 'And Dream of Sheep' and theatrical interludes written by David Mitchell and Bush herself.
The second act, which was spectacular and emotional in the concert, is the only part on this live album that sometimes fails to translate from stage to CD. Bush imagined it to be a 'radio play' in this medium, and it manages to sometimes feel a bit awkward and dated, like - surprise! - a radio play. The recordings of 'Under Ice', 'Watching You Without Me' and 'Hello Earth' mostly live up to or transcend their intricate album renditions. 'Waking the Witch', though, is six minutes of a delusional dream where most of the vocals are pre-recorded, which mostly functioned to advance the stage action. The distorted guitars and hammond runs sound more than slightly outdated, and it muddles the essence of this disk a bit.
Luckily there's a beautiful, expanded choral piece 'Little Light', which shows off the choir singing beautiful harmonies and Bush's gift for varying on themes. On 'Jig of Life', which had a slightly mystifying function on the original album, the story is now more clear, which gives the track more emotional push than on the album. Also a big improvement is the mostly acoustic version of 'The Morning Fog', which still feels like the waking up from a nightmare, but doesn't break the mood as rigourously as the banging drums on the original. The classical guitars and accordeon give it a Mediterranean taste, connecting it to the third act. It also includes, again, an allusion to the cathartic chorus of 'Cloudbusting'.
The third act, a variation on the second disk of 2005's Aerial
called 'An Endless Sky of Honey', is probably the hour-long high point of the show. From the gentle start with the 'Prelude' and 'Prologue', the emotional arc is clearer than on the original. 'Prologue', for example, extended from 5 to 10 minutes in length, starts out mournful and sad over an insistent bassline. Bush's narrator then starts wondering at the beauties of the summer and it ends in exuberance, donning an entire new section ('Bring it! Shake it down! Bring it on!'), church bells and evocations of birds.
'An Endless Sky of Honey' is rather a collection of themes around a story than an actual narrative. The story is the passing of a summer's day into a summer night. The themes around it are the visceral enchantment the weather and passing light brings on, an artist's struggle to capture all the colours and the nightly silence of the birds, who sing only when there's light. Especially the latter is conveyed beautifully and clearly, as a metaphor for dying and being reborn every day again.
'An Architect's Dream' and 'The Painter's Link', featuring Bush's son Albert as the painter, are both improvements on the rather flat versions on Aerial
, with more live drums and synths sounding less muted than on its source material. The highlight of act 3 comes in the form of its central tryptich. 'Sunset' combines profound musings on the moribund day with a celebration of the night with exuberant flamenco riffs played by multiple acoustic guitars. 'Aerial Tal', which used to be a slightly bizarre novelty song where Bush imitated birds, benefits from the tighter storytelling. It symbolizes the last song of the birds, and with the life and death analogy, it takes on a darker and genuinely touching tone. 'Somewhere in Between' is a beautifully composed paean to the falling night.
After that sequence, Bush includes a newly written song for her son Albert to sing about the artist's striving to paint the moon in all its glory. The songwriting sounds more '80's than anything she's done since 'Hounds of Love', and it is an uncharacteristically tense episode. Albert sings in a very musical-like voice, and he executes it well but may be overdoing the articulation a bit, not finding a lot of nuance or emotion in the song.
The end of the narrative arch comes with the sensual 'Nocturn', which Bush gives a slightly more urban flavour here with Omar Hakim's tight drumming. She re-iterates a chorus from 'Waking the Witch', now sung live ('Help this blackbird! There's a stone on my leg.') beautifully laying a link between the two suites as well as identifying herself with the bird who can't sing whilst it's dark. The sun does come up on 'Aerial'. In the show, this song was introduced by the ritual killing of a bird, and in the course of the song her melodic laughter aligns with a blackbird's song and a raven's crowing, signalling her turning into a bird. It's emotionally cathartic, devastating and it gives the song tons of resonance which it lacked on the original album.
By the time of the encore, Bush feels joyful in the bittersweet ballad 'Among Angels'. She finds even more nuance in her performance, sitting alone behind the piano and postponing harmonic resolutions until the last half minute. It's a magical, emotive song and her performance is stunning. 'Cloudbusting' is a return to the sound of the first set of songs. The band presents it as a straightforward rocker slightly at odds with the wryly emotional original, but the sheer joy of the chorus and the audience being able to sing along the catchy 'Ya-y-a-y-a-y-oh!' melody justifies it as a great closing song.
(Sorry for the lengthiness of that - but the album is over 2,5 hours long.)
So, although some elements may have been lost in translation, the vast majority of the material holds up beautifully. The sound of the album is less polished than most of Bush's recordings, and it does really sound live. Sometimes a bit of nuance is lost between pre-recorded audio and FX and the band playing live (especially in Act 2). Sometimes the sound can be a bit boomy, too, probably as a result of so many instruments playing together and live mixing. The quality of the lead vocal is brilliant: she sounds crisp, fluffy, rounded and vulnerable at the same time. The only thing the production team might have wanted to hold back on a bit is reverb. There are a lot
of delays and reverbs on the voice, sometimes actually overshadowing the words being sung simultaneously (a tendency Bush also had on 2011's Director's Cut
All in all, though, this live album captures the joy and intricacy of the production without compromising anything, just as the live performance itself did. It feels like a document of a hugely important piece of work by a timelessly innovative artist. It makes you thankful that Bush, at 56, went up there, overcame her demons, and gave us one of the most memorable, eleborate live spectacles in years. Thank you, Kate.