Tuesday, March 25, 2014
These are bleak times for music. Every generation seems a paler and paler imitation of the one that went before, and modern marketing produces records of such carefully-honed and deeply cynical soullessness and inhumanity that the old moon/June rhymsters of Tin Pin Alley seem as fearless chroniclers of the human condition in comparison.
And then there is someone like Kate Bush. When a modern – what? Singer? Performer? Personality? Is there even a noun for them? – writes his or her best-ever three minutes of music, he or she still can’t see Kate Bush on her very worst day in the far distance. The word “genius” is overused in our culture – in Bush’s case, it’s faint praise.
Pop songs are of their age. They bear their date like a carton of milk and stay fresh for about as long. Morrissey could only have been created by the British society in the ‘eighties. That’s why he’s such an embarrassment now.
Great music transcends that. Norwegian Wood could have been written tomorrow, and it would still sound like nothing else. The first time I heard Nick Cave’s Into My Arms I nearly crashed my car. Riders on the Storm sounds like nothing else. Heroes. There’s a lot of them.
And there’s no small amount of them created by Kate Bush – “written” is too limiting a word. David Bowie experimented with different genres – Bush is her own genre. You hear one of her songs and you know, instantly, that can only be Kate Bush.
Bush’s ideas come from somewhere known only to herself, and perhaps she herself doesn’t even know. There are esoteric theories of aesthetic creation that posit art is sometimes independent on the artist, that in the case of truly great art the artist is more a conduit than a creator.
Who knows? All we can be sure of is that nothing has ever sounded like Wuthering Heights or Running Up that Hill or any of the others.
She’s not too shabby at singing other people’s songs as well. Bush didn’t write Don’t Give Up, her mid-eighties duet with Peter Gabriel, but she owes it. It’s been written that Gabriel was generous in giving Bush the chorus parts of the duet, but it could be that he had no choice. When you sign a genius, you don’t have her singing backup.
Kate Bush’s version of Peadar Ó Doirín’s Mná na hÉireann is no less beautiful, and her Irish pronunciation should put some recent performances of Amhrán na bhFiann to shame (Brian Kennedy and Nadia Forde, named and shamed).
Hounds of Love is Kate Bush’s greatest album. Because she was so young when Wuthering Heights was released in 1978, by 1985 people began to think she was all-washed up. Her only attempt at touring in 1979 was a disaster, the records released in the early part of the decade didn’t do well, early fame is difficult to maintain.
And then Hounds of Love came out and it sounded like something coming through from another dimension. The drum-machines and synthesizers give the record an ‘eighties flavour, but there’s nothing ‘eighties about its sensibility, scope or ambition. It is astonishing, an expression of a genius at the height of her powers.
Also, the second side is unlistenable, which is something to consider about the upcoming concerts. John Lennon, for all his other faults, was correct in his assessment of the avant-garde, and some of Bush’s work is … challenging. It’s also highly unlikely that she’s do a greatest-hits show in Hammersmith, to send the punters home whistling. That’s not really in her nature.
But here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter a damn. Kate Bush has earned the right to do what she wants. Shy by nature, life hasn’t always been easy on her and the evil of contemporary fame hasn’t sat well with her. When she received a CBE from Queen Elizabeth last year, she made a point of having no interaction with the British media at all. This gives lie to the notion that the woman is nuts; making a point of avoiding the British media is not the act of someone who doesn’t have the head screwed on.
Bush’s own reclusiveness is the best thing about these shows. For many people they will be occasions of tremendous joy but, hopefully, for none more so than Kate Bush herself, who has earned joy over and over and over again.
And now, as a treat, here’s Kate Bush singing – or, more correctly, performing – the Elton John song Rocket Man on Wogan in the late 1980s. Leonard Cohen said once that the sign of a really great cover was that it transformed the song without actually changing it. For Elton John, it’s just another piano ballad. For Bush – well; you decide.