I can fly.
Kate Bush taught me how to fly.
This is an analysis I wrote when AERIAL was released in 2005.
So yes, much like "The Hounds of Love," let's start with the first side or disc one: A SEA OF HONEY, is a disc of “Kate songs,” as she herself calls them. She means that they are songs that stand on their own, independent of anything else—separate from an overriding concept. Each one tells a story, and these songs certainly do.
The opening track KING OF THE MOUNTAIN is spooky and swooping, with a vaguely reggae-beat. She incorporates chilly, edgy wind sounds but in the middle of the song, they are low rumblings of wind, as though being blown through a small crack in a window. The song is partially addressed to Elvis who may be “out there” somewhere, sad, lonely—riding a sled named Rosebud, thus likening the legend of the King of Rock and Roll to Charles Foster Kane, CITIZNE KANE, lonely and alone in his mansion. It has something to say about the price of fame as well—that it is a very lonely affair, with menace waiting ahead. And the only way out of it is to go “away.”
The video for this song is charming. It shows a mansion like Kane’s, but it is supposed to be Elvis’ house. His closet opens up by itself and one of his old glittery jumpsuits comes alive and dances itself out of the closet, through the house, and onto the wind. It blows by other clothes on a wash line, and the shirts try to reach up and touch “The King” (like screaming female fans at one of his concerts) but can’t go too far since they are clothes pinned to the line. The jumpsuit ends up high in the mountains, tinged with pink and red in a lovely effect, and finally to its old owner: there is Elvis, sledding down a hill on Rosebud. He is old now, with a gut and white hair still styled in his pompadour and accompanying pork chop sideburns. His old jumpsuit leaps into his arms and the two are overcome with joy to see each other again. It is fun but also quite moving. And a little shocking to see an old Elvis, which makes us reflect on what would have happened if he had not died, what he would look like, what he would have done with his career, etc.
On the track π, she sings the calculation to the one hundred and sixteenth decimal place! Who else in “pop” music would dare to do that? (I think of the old joke about anyone who is a wonderful singer: “She could sing the phone book and make it sound good!”) It is a simple premise: a sort of “love” song to either a smart mathematician or a savant. Either way, the man is, as she says, obsessed with numbers. Kate singing numbers takes the place of singing words. The tenderness with which she sings them replicates the love and lure they hold for this man, so numbers are the language here. It is said that numbers—well, math—is the universal language. And this flashes before us in a visceral way listening to her crooning and caressing the numbers.
On a tangent, I remembered the film CONTACT and how the information in the message was given in numbers, because the aliens knew that any civilization smart enough to know what π is, would be able to figure out the code!
BERTIE, a love song to her 7 year old son, is a startling track only in that it is a Renaissance ballad with period instruments! It is a true Olde English Madrigal. I LOVE how she manipulates her voice when singing “Sweeee-eee-eee-eeeeet kisses” and the following “Threeeee-eeeee-eeee-eeee wishes.”
On the surface, MRS. BERTOLOZZI is a lovely song about a woman doing the washing. But when you focus on the words it deepens into a song of agonizing beauty.
Right from the opening piano chords and her moaning voice, one can sense the weariness and sadness. She sings of a rainy Wednesday. It took hours for her to clean up the mess “they” made. The impression is that she is cleaning up after her own family or even that she is a maid for another family. She gathers the dirty clothes to do some wash, collecting “your” jeans and shirts and things. They go into the new washing machine and the way she sings “washing machine” shows that the object has significance, that this is not just an ordinary washing machine. She watches the clothes go ‘round in a daydream, seeing her blouse wrap itself around her man’s trousers (her longing to touch her man again). The daydream continues to the ocean where he is standing behind her. The repetition of the waves coming in and going out, coupled with the repetition of the tune is hypnotizing—like watching the agitator in a washing machine. Then she thinks she sees him out of the corner of her eye, standing outside, but she sees that it is one of her man’s shirts she has already put on the line to dry. It is quite clear at this point that he is dead since she says the shirt “seems so alive.”
This is the stuff that grief is made of. When a loved one dies, all we have left are the things that person owned, wore, touched, liked, loved, used. We are surrounded by these things, constant reminders of their absence. And in our grief, we try to keep ourselves occupied by doing the wash, trying to concentrate on little things that will not tax us too much. The washing machine becomes her focus. She can clean and do the laundry. They are things that ground, that root one in real life, but beyond that, are things that must be done. Life goes on in that awful paradox: life goes on for YOU, not for your loved one who is gone. It is a tender song, full of loss and longing.
And the end sounds like some kind of old jingle from an advertisement for a detergent, something from the 40s or 50s. The accent she uses here is approaching a kind of lower class, almost Cockney sound. Again, it is a memory, a piece of nostalgia for Mrs. Bertolozzi.
HOW TO BE INVISIBLE has a very menacing sound. The rhythm and bass line seem to be “stalking.” I LOVE the spell from the book she finds: they all have to do with hiding, disappearing or being somehow invisible. “Eye of Braille” is obvious since it references literally being blind, not seeing. “Hem of anorak” is the hood on an anorak, a heavy jacket. When the hood is pulled down, one cannot see, thus being blind as in the first line. It also reminds me of how children think that because they close THEIR eyes, that YOU can’t see them. One can sort of hunker down and “disappear” in an anorak. “Stem of wallflower” is kind of amusing because of course, a wallflower is not a real flower with a stem, but is someone who blends in with the wallpaper, someone who is mousy, plain, not noticeable, someone who “disappears.” And finally “Hair of doormat” is another one of those figurative images, a doormat being someone who lets other people “walk all over them,” thus rendering themselves, in effect, invisible. And all the images at the end are wonderful because they are so cinematic: if the Invisible Man were walking home, all one would see would be the leaves stirring behind him—or if he were to go swimming, it would be a little “storm” in the pool. Wonderfully visual. This song reminds me of the Kate from THE DREAMING, full of spells and incantations, ready to use her magic and turn into a mule at any moment.
The next song is JOANNI, a brief snapshot of Joan of Arc going into battle. It is unexpected on many levels. She refers to Joan of Arc as Joanni, a very familiar, chummy nickname. The carefree, swinging sense of the song is something I would never have associated with the subject matter. Shortly after the songs starts, there is a faraway battle cry. Her approach to painting this little mini-picture of Joan of Arc is one of admiration and perhaps even awe, as everything, the soldiers, even the flags and banners stop when Joanni comes on to the field—and if it were to be filmed, I would expect to see Joanni in slow motion, confident, charismatic, sunlight glinting off her armour, hair bouncing, as her head slowly turns to survey the field, her eyes sparkling in the sun. She blows a kiss to God and she never wears a ring on her fingers—because she has dedicated herself to God, she can never belong to another.
I really like the very odd throaty humming chorus at the end and we hear the far away battle cry again. Despite her gruesome, fiery legend, this is a very sensual, upbeat, gliding song.
And the disc ends with A CORAL ROOM about Kate’s mother’s death. It is a deeply still song and I found myself holding my breath through it—which had nothing to do with the fact that most of the song takes place under water.
The fact that it is just Kate and her piano imparts a very scaled down, intimate effect. Once the song gets underway, it feels so intimate, that it verges on feeling as though one is prying, seeing right into her heart and head.
Like so many Kate songs, the imagery stands in for something much bigger and more important. So, what do we know from the words? Well, to start with there is a city draped in fishing net. The city is underwater, but how? Has there been a disaster? Did the city sink? We don’t know yet. Through the half-light (the sun penetrating only partially into the depths), she says the towers look like they are covered in webs. A few lines later, we see where these webs came from: the spider of time. And what exactly is the spider of time? My sense is that it is the invisible movement of time, how all things eventually die, crumble, fall apart. It is entropy in the form of a spider, slowly, eventually covering everything in a web of time and age. She says there were hundreds of people living in this city—once? At the time of its destruction? Did they get out? The planes came crashing down and pilots drowned. Was there a war?
Kate sometimes does something interesting in her lyrics by mixing time periods and tenses. So in the line immediately following the planes crashing and pilots drowning, the speed boats fly overhead. Well, we WERE in the city BEFORE it sunk but now we must be underwater, seeing things from the city, looking up—and we see the bottom of speed boats. If we are under them, they do appear to be “flying.” Now, we are up in the boat, and she tells you to put your hand over the side of the boat and asks what you feel. What COULD you feel? What does she WANT you to feel, to notice? Here we jump to her memory of her mother who evidently had a little brown jug that she kept milk in. It is something that belonged to her mother, and just like Mrs. Bertolozzi with her husband’s clothes, it is what she has now instead of her actual mother. She says it holds her memories. And she can hear her mother singing a line from an old, traditional Irish tune about a little brown jug. It is a beautiful touch to have a tenor “echo” the song, as though it is another memory, a piece of nostalgia. (Kate did this once before in a song called MOMENTS OF PLEASURE from her prior release THE RED SHOES. The song is similar in intent, recounting memories of people who are gone. She says “I can hear my mother saying, ‘Every old sock meets an old shoe’.”) Again, we jump around in time: “I hear her laughing, she is standing in the kitchen as we come in the back door—” but suddenly we are thrust forward in time, after her mother is gone, to see the jug fall from the shelf in the kitchen, perhaps from the vibration of the closing back door. It falls, and breaks. And it is brilliant that she says NOTHING about the heartbreak of the jug shattering, one of the precious things that belonged to her mother—she simply sings, “See it fall—see it fall.” Little spiders climb out of the broken jug, to start weaving webs over it immediately, aging it, breaking it even more.
And we pull up and back, as she sings that the pieces will lay there for a while in a house draped in net, in a room filled with coral. By this, we see that the city has been under water for some time, long enough for coral to grow and fill the room. And again, she tells you to put your hand over the side of the boat. She repeats it, in a tone cracking with emotion (indeed, she sounds like she is on the verge of tears through the entire song), almost daring you to do it. And tell her what you feel. Do you feel the lives that used to live there? All the lives that were lost? Do you feel her mother, the jug? Do you feel her grief? Her grief is in the water—her grief IS the water, burying the city, her old house, her mother’s house, her old life. Under water, being covered by webs, being erased. She knows that being engulfed by grief over the loss of a loved one is to be underwater, in the half-light, living a half-life. It is to be drowned, unable to be rescued. It is to witness, helplessly, the drowned world, unable to rescue it or anyone from it.
All in all, I found disc one to be subtle, very deliberately paced, delicate and hypnotic. It seems like Kate is exploring a new sense in her music, one of “trance”—hypnotic and driving, a little along the lines of what is now being called “trance” music, but without the dance floor intent. HOW TO BE INVISIBLE, JOANNI and to a degree PI made me lapse into an alpha-state and stare straight ahead, inside of myself. And as for A SEA OF HONEY—there are sea and water images in 3 of the 7 songs.
Disc two is obviously A SKY OF HONEY, since the entire suite takes place under the sun or stars and moon, in a sky filled with birds. It is all about the sky, the “aerial,” the direction “up.”
Her previous concept piece THE NINTH WAVE was a complex, dense layering of ideas, images and sounds. In that prior release, the songs bear little relation to each other musically but they are connected through the story line of a woman adrift at sea in a life jacket after some kind of boating accident. The woman spends the night alone in the water, trying to stay awake, waiting to be rescued, while she hallucinates out of exhaustion and fear. She has a past life flash of being tried for witchcraft and drowned, she leaves her body to visit her loved one at home waiting and wondering where she is, and she ends up floating in space, looking back at the earth.
Well, A SKY OF HONEY is nowhere near as complex, at least in story line, but it is just as spiritual. It is abstract, Impressionistic. In fact, she invokes Impressionist painting with many references to colors and light and an actual painter as a character in the “story.” It is also much more in the tradition of an Impressionistic piece of music, like something by Ravel. It is a song cycle and has leitmotifs both lyrically and musically. Of course the overriding image is that of the sky and birds as we cycle through a day, but not just any ordinary day—it is Midsummer, a halfway point of the year, the pinnacle of light itself, the time when days begin to grow shorter. Time, the earth turning, color, birds, light, sun, moon, stars, sunset, sunrise, language. Trying to catch it on canvas—or at all, somehow, anyhow.
The PRELUDE exists for one simple reason: to introduce the bird song that permeates this suite. As pigeons coo under smooth, languid tones and Kate plays a deeply wistful melody on the piano, a little boy (as played by her son Bertie) announces to his Mummy and Daddy that the day is full of birds, and that it sounds like they are saying words. It is quite startling to hear that, yes indeed, they do. When I first heard this piece I literally gasped when I heard the language under the bird song. The coo is infused with what your ear swears is human speech. The birds are trying to speak, to communicate. What are they trying to say?
The PRELUDE is written as the traditional definition: a short piece of music, in free style, usually for keyboard.
We slide right into the PROLOGUE, meant to introduce us to the cycle. It is an innocent enough introduction, betraying none of the adventure and rapture to come.
The throbbing synthesizer and piano act as the afternoon sun, pulsing down on us, making us sleepy, dreamy. Warmth emanates from the sun and thus the instruments. She sings to Midsummer itself: “Every time you leave us/ So summer will be gone/ So you’ll never grow old to us.” This makes me think of the ancient Greek legend of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, who at the end of every summer, was forced to return to her husband’s home under the earth. Her mother would mourn for her daughter and winter would come. But Persephone was allowed to return months later, her mother’s happiness would create summer, and Persephone would never grow old.
The pulsing afternoon sun continues. She likens the light to the light in Italy, famous for otherworldly sunlight (witness the Venetian paintings of Turner). She sings in Italian, “Oh my Rome, my treasure, full of sun light…” Enter drums and strings as she sings, “What a lovely afternoon. Will you come with us to find the song of the oil and the brush?”
Which introduces us to the oil and brush man, the Impressionist painter in AN ARCHITECT’S DREAM. The sensual, languid sound of afternoon is intensified here with the addition of bongos. It is the barest suggestion that something may be building…
Kate watches a man paint a plein air landscape. He continues despite the ever-changing light. How do you capture a world that is constantly becoming something different? It captivates her to watch him create, layering the colors, the forms. Even when he makes a mistake, it becomes a perfect part of the composition. The painting is constantly evolving, just like the landscape and the light. So in a sense, there is no such thing as a “mistake.” It simply IS, in harmony, which in a way, is the ultimate theme in this suite, the concept of harmony, of being fully present in time and space.
And the late afternoon rain sweeps in…
Far away thunder. Birdsong. The short THE PAINTER’S LINK…is a link between the previous song and the following? Is it a link for the painter between this world and his painted world? Our poor painter stands and watches his work ruined. “What has become of my painting? All the colours are running.” Kate sang previously that whenever the painter works on the pavement in his painting, it starts to rain. Maybe his painting is a magic link to this world? If it rains when he paints the pavement, perhaps the running colors are timed with the sunset, with the paint mingling and mirroring the actual sunset? Again, according to Kate, there are no mistakes, there is no “ruined”—his lovely landscape has turned into a wonderful sunset. The link is the sunset, the link between day and night.
And now, the SUNSET itself. The music turns into a sultry jazz combo, as the light and air turn sultry. The light slips out of wet clothes and changes into an iridescent blue. At dusk, blackbirds sing a song of colour. The sand does too, singing a song of crimson, red and rust. All is awash with colour.
This piece is full of achingly lovely images and words. “Every sleepy light/ Must say goodbye/ To the day before it dies.”
As the sun and colours become more and more fiery, the music spins into a Spanish Flamenco, a brilliant touch linking the “fiery” Latin culture with the red and fire of the sunset.
The birds are singing clearer. Or maybe your mind, as it stills and watches the colours, is becoming accustomed to understanding bird-speak? AERIAL TAL (Sky TALk? the name of the language of the birds?) is a bridge between the sunset and the milky blue dusk of tenebre. It is…
SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN, where “the shadows come to play/ ‘Twixt the day/ And night.” Between this and that, neither this nor that—it is the stillness and silence as she and a significant other watch it all from the top of the highest hill. And every sleepy light says goodbye to the day…the sun (son) says “Goodnight mum.”
“Sweet dreams…” answers Kate in what sounds like a whispered sample from a Gregorian chant, and the dreamy, floating, swirling, hallucinatory NOCTURN begins our Midsummer night. She wonders if they are awake or asleep—“Could be we are here/ Could be in a dream”—the scene and moonlight-soaked landscape are so surreal, they could be in a dream.
A sexy, trance-like bass line comes in, underscoring the sensuality of a swim in warm, “milky, silky” waters in the middle of the night. Their clothes lay on the beach, their footprints lead right up to the water, they are alone. They stand in the Atlantic and “become panoramic”—this line speaks to me of something akin to an out-of-body experience. I have heard of people, during meditation, achieving a sense of the vastness of the space around them, and she achieves that standing in the ocean—“The sky’s above our heads/ The sea’s around our legs.” The piece turns even more fantastical with her newfound enlightenment of space as she sings that the stars are caught in their hair and are on their fingers. Even the galaxies are just a few inches away: “A veil of diamond dust/ Just reach up and touch it.”
The music begins a slow gallop here: something is building, something is happening. Here, Kate is joined by a chorus of herself in a magnificently chilling, goose-bump-raising, warped harmony. “It came up on the horizon/ Rising, Rising.” The sun is coming back, bringing with it the colour of honey. She is joined by male voices and they hurriedly abandon singing for a much more powerful and urgent sound: “LOOK AT THE LIGHT!/ Climbing up the aerial (sky).” The light is changing, it is back, and it is white and it is changing and it is jumping off the aerial and it is changing and it is changing—and all the dreamers awaken at the abrupt end of the song—BOOM!
We are given a brief moment to catch our breaths from that sudden dazzling, majestic sunrise as the pulse (sunlight) returns, and the birds start to titter. Our entire world is now the AERIAL, the grand finale to this suite, and a grand one it is. The earth rotates, the sun returns, the song of time must be sung—and we take off at a full adrenaline gallop, hearts pounding, as the sound becomes commanding, stomping.
She yearns to be on the roof, she needs to be on the roof—no, she must be on the roof, up, UP on the roof, as close as she can get to the birds, to the sun. I can almost hear her saying, “I don’t know why, but I have to, I HAVE to get up on the roof.” We feel delirious with her and she asks “What kind of language is this? I can’t hear a word you’re saying/ Tell me are you singing?” We feel the rush, and the noise among the birds. She can’t hear what you’re saying over the birds. But who is speaking? What language is this? The Aerial Tal/ the bird-speak? The language is a language of song. And we take a break to put two and two together… she “sings” a duet with some birds: they twitter, their voices rising and falling in a pattern, and she laughs, her guffaws rising and falling in a pattern. They take turns in an inspired stretch to make one song, which illustrates that bird “song” is speech, a language just as ours is. We make sounds that rise and fall like they do. All speech is song and John Cage said, “All sound is music.”
Suddenly she realizes what they are saying, that they are laughing, and why. They are happy the sun is back. They are giddy with joy because the sun is back. How something so mysterious and complex can be so breathtakingly simple. Happiness. Joy. Laughter. Let’s join in…
I see her standing “up, up, high on the roof,” ecstatically raising her arms with the rising sun, in a state of rapture, a state of bliss, ready to take to the sky with the birds. At this point she begins to babble, to sing like the birds—what language is this? Is she speaking or singing? It doesn’t matter—this is a true Maslowian peak experience, one that takes you completely out of yourself, that makes you feel very tiny, or very large, at one with the universe, a feeling of being a part of the infinite and eternal. This is true euphoria. In a fit of frenzied yet metered musical laughter, she is gloriously transcending and we are going with her as she turns into the birds, the sky, the sun.