The Mother of All Comebacks. More or Less.

Kate Bush returns with boho bricolage and songs about laundry

Kate Bush
Aerial
Columbia

Signed and recording demos by age 14, Kate Bush rode into pop stardom with a mythology riding tandem. Her first hit, the 1978 art ballad "Wuthering Heights," established the child prodigy and dancer as an intellect with a voice of gauze, an instinct for the ethereal and a littérateur's language (though she hadn't yet read Brontë). Bush's soprano, breathy yet firm, was undeniable, but her precocity and David Gilmour's imprimatur surely ramped up the mystique. She wrote about fairy tales, love, and women's work: The Brit imagination was caught. As fans lionized her persona, Bush was seen as an otherworldly creature, the untouchable chanteuse, an artist on the mount. For the past 12 years, since 1993's The Red Shoes and her mother's death, Bush has been silent, and for 12 years the question "Where is Kate Bush?" has tortured the sleep of her fan base (most popular guesses: on a spaceship, in the woods, on a farm, in an ivory tower). Absent from light, her mythology developed Howard Hughes qualities; Bush told Mojo magazine this month, "I go out of my way to be a very normal person and I just find it frustrating that people think that I'm some kind of weirdo reclusive that never comes out into the world." Aerial, incubating for 9 of the 12 years between albums, during which period Bush became a mother herself, answers the question, more of a plea, Where have you been? quite simply: making a home, being a mom, documenting an ordinary life.

Motherhood is the sinewy thread that ties Kate Bush's last album, 1993's The Red Shoes, to Aerial. Red Shoes reckoned with the death of Bush's own mother, Hannah, whose memory rings through the teary, breathless energy of "Moments of Pleasure" (on which Bush belted the line, "And I can hear my mother saying 'every old sock meets an old shoe'"). With Aerial she offers orisons to domestic routine and the blinding, rich satisfaction of parenting: On the heartrending eulogy "A Coral Room," a song she wrote for Red Shoes but has said was too painful to include at the time, she sings, "My mother and her little brown jug/It held her milk/Now it holds her memories." She sings a ballad to her son with equal vehemence and emotion. Bush's catalogue is flush with meditations on womanhood from a gentle and generous point of view. Now 47, she invests such unglamorous activities as doing laundry with their own profound sense of ritual and mystery, magic and romance. On "Mrs. Bertoluzzi," she imbues a washing machine with the spirit of an absent lover, gazing up at the clothesline, seeing a shirt, imagining he is there. Onomatopoeiazing the sound of a load, she sings, "swish swish swish," a charming moment that will forever alter the way fans experience laundromats. Inflated by broader themes--air, birds, the wind--and populated by characters from the math savant ("Pi") to Elvis Presley ("King of the Mountain") to Joan of Arc ("Joanni"), Aerial is Bush pulling her best tricks: conjoining emotion with the imaginary, seeing the magic in the mundane, blessing it all with her charm.

Some songs were back-catalogued, and sound like it. "King of the Mountain" wonders what Elvis might be doing had he cheated death; the "Elvis is alive" motif, by my calculation, was last a pertinent cultural topic in about 1994. But it's thrilling to imagine him "in the snow with Rosebud," the Citizen Kane sled, even as Bush unnecessarily parks her extensive range on the median. On A Sea of Honey, the first disc, caverns of drums, pianos, and guitar and a live orchestra swell, but the arrangements, a bit tepid and mid-tempo, occasionally sound dusty (written 12 years ago?), and don't live up to the challenge of Bush's singular voice and inflections. But when her voice roller-coasters, the instrumental flaccidness is a secondary concern. Bush remains powerful as a poet, storyteller, and vocalist, her high lilt careening through gorgeous lines like "It looks like every town/Is covered in webs/Moving and glowing and glistening/And rocking its babies." Any smushiness wrought on Sea is countered by Sky of Honey, the second disc, a more interesting song cycle that sits better with Bush's tradition of experimentalism. All cinematic unraveling and field recordings, Sky's bricolage of spoken word, actual birds chirping very loudly in the mix, and, at its best, electronic flourish and bass thrum, never overshadow Bush's voice. Here is Kate Bush the multidisciplinarian, borrowing cut-and-splice concepts from experimental film, a curiosity in audio art executed with a dancer's meted sense of time. Rapunzel has let down her hair; when we climb up, she's mopping the floorboards.

 
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