Hello, bright-eyed and sharp-eared readers! This is my first column for the inestimable Persephone Magazine, and I’m hoping to make it an at least weekly occurrence. Allow me to provide a grubby little introduction for myself.
I’m Dr. Song. As the name might suggest to you, I’m an archaeologist, though out of work; I currently divide my time between throwing my resumes at all the museums in sight, hoping they’ll allow me to mop floors or something, and reading Regretsy. I’m also an expat who fled from my home state of Maine to attend graduate school in the Northeast of England, and am inexplicably still there.
Living in Britain has been really good for my music collection, I have to say. Bowie and all his glam-rock contemporaries have long been a staple of my iTunes, but the wealth of back catalogues I’ve waded through in the last 15 months has introduced me to some really stellar, unusual, groundbreaking acts, and also Elvis Costello. (He’s Irish! I always thought he was from LA!) Seriously, the Brits will let anyone on the radio, and their popular music over the last 60 years is all the better for it.
Aiding me in my musical quest is Mr. Brum, my laddish sidekick despite his grey hair. One of the first songs Mr. Brum ever played for me was by the artist I’m about to review today; she had a big year. I only just “met her” about twelve months ago. As an American, raised on the Wonderbread pop diet the late ’90s shoved down our throats, Kate Bush is too good to be real.
There are two things to bear in mind when being introduced to Kate Bush. One, she is incredibly talented, and has a vocal range to rival Freddie Mercury’s. Two, she is absolutely batshit, and doesn’t care. Take a look at her first hit single, “Wuthering Heights“:
It’s a piano pop song! About a Bronte novel! And it totally hit Number One in the British charts when it came out! Now consider that when she released that album, The Kick Inside, she was 19, and “Wuthering Heights” was the first #1 hit by a female artist that the singer had actually written herself. Also she choreographed that dance, and probably sewed the dress. I heard an interview with her on Radio 4 in which she attributed her latest songwriting inspirations to the accidental presence of a bag of bone meal fertilizer inside her piano. Essentially, Kate Bush is what Bjork has always been trying to be. She is the Ur-Bjork.
Over the years, she’s made a name for herself, both by releasing amazeballs albums like The Dreaming, a concept album written from the perspective of Houdini’s wife, and for doing things like joining mime troupes and only ever touring once (in 1979) and starting her own record label called Fish People and naming her son Albert, which is the most normal thing she’s ever done.
Bush is particularly noted for taking long breaks between albums, most notably the twelve years between The Red Shoes (1993) and Aerial (2005). She broke rank with that in 2011, however, by releasing two albums within twelve months of each other: Director’s Cut and 50 Words For Snow.
Director’s Cut is a retrospective, in the sense that all the songs on it were originally released on earlier albums from 1989 and 1993). For the new release, all the vocals were re-recorded by Bush and some songs were extensively remixed and, sin some cases, transformed. Take “The Sensual World”, a title track from her 1989 album; on Director’s Cut, it’s transformed into “Flower Of The Mountain,” with lyrics taken entirely from James Joyce’s Ulysses.
It has a strange otherworldliness to it; I can’t pin down whether the backing strings sound Indian or Irish, and Bush purrs the words in a slow dance that suggests something almost Biblical. Suddenly the book that the Better Book Titles blog renamed One Long Sentence About Handjobs is feminine and entrancing, rather than sharply, cerebrally disjointed; she turns Joyce into someone new.
Other songs include “Lily,” about a wisewoman protecting Bush with the power of the archangels, and “This Woman’s Work,” a panicked song about childbirth from a husband’s point of view. My favorite, however, is the thumping ceilidh beat of “The Red Shoes,” based on the original ending of the Snow White fairy tale: the prince straps red-hot iron shoes to the evil stepmother’s feet, and she dances in agony until she dies. The instrumentation has a circular feel to it, like a dropped plate spinning to a stop; Bush shrieks and coaxes in her lyrics – “Call a doctor, call a priest!” – but you never lose the sense that in some small way, she’s dancing because she wants to.
Director’s Cut is a fabulous introduction to Bush’s work and I really recommend it to new fans. I have to say that some of the originals are more to my taste than her reworked versions, particularly “Rubberband Girl,” but I’m more thrilled that I have the chance even to choose.
50 Words For Snow
In contrast to Director’s Cut, 50 Words For Snow is a collection of completely new work, and it’s all related to winter: from “Misty,” an ode to a snowman lover who melts away after a night of passion, to “Snowed In At Wheeler Street,” a strong duet with Elton John: two lovers reminiscing about their fractured past on a winter’s night. The weird prog-rockness of “Wild Man,” the only single off the album, is made even more surreal by the addition of jingle bells and bizarre harmonies.
It’s a strong album, although not as much to my liking as her stuff from the early ’90s. But the songwriting is still unabashedly strong, and unabashedly bonkers. The highlight, for me, is the title track:
The drumbeat is what really sells this one from the beginning, but the vocals that layer on top of it whisper out of the percussion like wind whistling through trees. The piano interludes are eerie and the accompanying guitar sounds frazzled and unsteady, like someone ploughing through drifts up to their knees. To top it all off, the voice reading the gibberish words for snow, which were all coined by Bush herself, is Stephen Fry. All these elements combine into hypnotic, symphonic strata of music that lasts almost ten minutes.
So. The bottom line? Director’s Cut is an album that demands you listen. Its vocal and instrumental trickery is so enjoyable that on the fourth or fifth listening I approached it almost as I would a puzzle. 50 Words For Snow is more like classical music, in that it fades more easily into a background, for instance if you’re trying to read or work on something; but an concentrated study of it is just as rewarding. Underpinning all these different traits is Bush’s commitment to telling the stories of women, a thread that has always been present in her work, and which has been a beacon to every weirdo girl with a gift for music and storytelling who ever came after.
That’s all for this week, rock bitches! Tune in next time: same bat time, same bat place. Also, we’re accepting suggestions for the title of the column: I thought about calling it Dr Song’s Horrible-Along Blog but I’m not sold on that.