On August 26, 2014, Kate Bush played her first full concert since 1979. In the 22-show residency that followed at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, called Before the Dawn, Bush played a three-act set, with one focused on an assortment of songs, one that recreated the narrative suite on her classic Hounds of Love album’s Side B, The Ninth Wave, and the third devoted to the last half of her 2005 paean to domesticity Aerial, titled A Sky of Honey. She has released a live album cobbled together from various performances during her show’s run. Jezebel’s resident Kate Bush enthusiasts Madeleine Davies and Rich Juzwiak discuss the triple-disc release below.
Rich: We should get out of the way that we are both adore Kate Bush and that no matter what she releases, we are thrilled to have her releasing anything at all, giving us things to consider, and perhaps even enjoy.
Madeleine: Yes, I think she could release an album of lullabies and I would still be thrilled. Actually, she should do that…
Rich: A collection of nice songs for children. 😉
Madeleine: Like I predicted: Thrilled!
Rich: She spent 12 years—from the release of 1993’s The Red Shoes to 2005’s Aerial—almost completely out of public view and no matter what, it’s great to have her back. Her mind is too good to be locked away. It’s a natural resource, a wonder of the world, a bull surprising you from behind only to leap over you.
Madeleine: Yeah, I feel like she both curses us and blesses us—to have such immense talent and be so shy and reclusive is almost, I don’t know, not selfish, but withholding? But at the same time, it makes you appreciate her so much more when she arrives.
Rich: There’s something refreshingly old-fashioned in her public communication of the last 11 years. She exercises the radical notion of… speaking when she has something to say! She doesn’t do social media, apart from an occasional, brief letter to her fans on her website. She doesn’t seem very hurried to do much at all. Good for her. Fight the power that twists and divides my brain into different proportions moment to moment.
I wish I were so privileged!
Madeleine: I love that. Earlier today, our coworker shared an article where she was commenting on politics and I was like, “GET THAT OUT OF HERE.” To me (and this is willful ignorance, I guess), I want to keep her apolitical and above such petty mortal issues.
Rich: In a recent BBC interview, she was asked if she was inspired by the current political climate to write. Her answer? “No.” That’s so good. I wish more people said no!
Madeleine: Everyone say no! In that same BBC interview, she also spoke to what you were mentioning before, about taking her time, not hurrying. She just wants to try new and different things which is pretty remarkable for a career that spans nearly 40 years.
Rich: Agreed. Buuuuuuuuuut.
With all of that said, and I hope, the establishment of my undying devotion to this woman, who’s brought me more pleasure in song and dance and donkey bray than any other pop star who ever existed, I can’t ignore that her latest releases, by and large, feel like lesser work.
Madeleine: I can’t disagree with that either, haha.
Rich: Don’t get me wrong, I think she’s doing cool stuff with her earlier work, and that she doesn’t come off with any sort of “legacy artist” desperation. But am I going to reach for 50 Words for Snow or even Aerial when I want to listen to Kate Bush? Not a chance.
There are several reasons for this, the primary one being that it’s not just her lyrics or tunes that made me love her, it’s her studio wizardry, which has really taken a backseat in this phase of her career. For albums like The Dreaming and Hounds of Love, she would write very quickly and then spend over a year producing the fuck out of it. Starting with Aerial, her music has taken on a decidedly less electronic, more band-oriented sheen.
Madeleine: Yeah, I mean, Hounds of Love, in my mind, is one of the top five best albums of all time (controversial opinion, I know) and it was those songs that got me most excited on Before the Dawn, which—as we’ve reported on before—is a three-act, live concert album.
It’s strange because a lot of this concert felt like a rock show, which isn’t necessarily what I’d associate with Kate Bush.
Rich: Yes, exactly. Do I need live cymbals clattering on “Running Up That Hill?” No, I do not. While it’s incredibly impressive that Kate was able to translate such an intricately arranged design of electronic and acoustic instruments into a live setting at all, these renditions of 10 out of Hounds of Love 12 tracks comprise a mushier, more straightforward reading of this work. It’s almost the opposite of a remastering.
Madeleine: Even the first song, “Lily,” (originally on The Red Shoes) felt jarring because it’s interrupted by this explosion of electric guitar. I wasn’t ready!
Rich: The real question that I hear echoing in the background when I listen to Before the Dawn is: What is this good for? When the novelty of hearing Kate sing a lot of amazing songs from 30 years ago wears off, what will I use this for? Why would I put on a slower version of “Hounds of Love” sung in Kate’s current deeper, husky growl when I can hear that brilliant cackle of a voice she had go from 0 to 30,000 feet in an instant, per the original recording?
Madeleine: I know that you were annoyed that they weren’t releasing a visual component along with the album—I suspect that, if they had, we wouldn’t necessarily have that question, “What is this good for?”
Rich: You are correct.
Madeleine: It’s good (or best), I suppose, for diehards who got to see her in 2014, at her first concert in decades, and, by most accounts, the show was visually spectacular. But we don’t get to share in that simply by listening.
Rich: Right. Kate explained in that aforementioned interview, “I’m hoping that people won’t feel disappointed, that this is, for me, something that is far more representative of being there, because it holds the energy of the room and that incredible audience. And yet, it allows your imagination to wonder at what it was to be there, I think in a much more sort of real way.”
I mean, this is coming from someone with a boundless imagination. Very few of us are so blessed! Check your imag priv, Kate!
Furthermore, I can’t be left with my imagination!
Madeleine: I was actually thinking about this while listening, because I think you and I experience music very differently. You’re an active listener and a natural critic, while I’m more passive and kind of let things wash over me.
Rich: You’re allowed to call me a dick.
Madeleine: Fine, you’re a dick!
No, I just mean that I’m a very imaginative person and I still didn’t feel entirely carried away by this album.
Rich: Yeah, I’m very literal and I know that the stage show that Kate mounted—which phone recordings of were forbidden, and her fans by and large listened, in an immense yet unsurprising display of devotion—is narrative and more than half the story here and I just can’t help but feel like I’m missing out. Kate has always walked the line between genius and ridiculousness thrillingly, and yet again, that’s flattened here. I want to see her dressed as a bird when she’s doing birdsong, not just imagine what that would look like.
To the BBC, she also said that she didn’t allow cameras onstage for the shows that were filmed (she didn’t want to obstruct the audience’s view) and that, “When you’re in a theater at a live performance, it’s a completely different medium from watching a film.” So I suspect her legendary perfectionism informed the audio-only decision, as well.
Madeleine: Were there any parts of Before the Dawn that really impressed you?
Rich: Well, I’ll say that I finally get the greatness of “Never Be Mine.” The Sensual World never grabbed me, apart from its singles, mostly because its soggy and sappy late-‘80s production. Even the version on Director’s Cut, which is replicated here alongside “Top of the City” and “Lily,” didn’t grab me. But now I get it and I can’t believe it took me this long. What an incredible expression of longing.
And sometimes her voice is more soulful in a way. Because it’s less naturally acrobatic, she has to really sell the lines. There’s a part on “Top of the City” that sounds just like her soul gushing forth. It’s almost ugly, you can hear larynx squeezing out the sound, but so effective.
Madeleine: That’s an interesting thing to note—maybe a lot of what attracted me to her initially was her theatricality and this is more stripped down, more raw.
I guess that’s not new to her, though— “This Woman’s Work,” which is not on the live album, is one example of a song that’s just, like, a gorgeous open wound.
Rich: To your point, a lot of the stuff from the first two albums especially, is stripped down and Before the Dawn overall gives me a sort of ‘70s, prog-adjacent feeling.
I guess what I have the least amount of problems with is the section of the show taken from Aerial’s Side B, A Sky of Honey. Again, that’s an album less reliant on the intricacies of the studio, more grounded in traditional instrumentation. Though my favorite track from that album, “Sunset”—a song I will gladly put on alongside “Army Dreamers” and “Houdini”—feels jam-bandy in its Before the Dawn incarnation. I don’t listen to… jam bands. Ya know?
Madeleine: Right, and with reason! I grew up in a very hippy-dippy city that had a lot of outdoor music events featuring jam bands and there was a specific type of lady that would always be there dancing in this way that was always, I dunno, led by her uterus? Anyway, I could see that lady really loving this album.
Rich: Is there anything you or your uterus love about this release? Do you envision yourself incorporating it (or any part of it) into your normal Kate Bush rotation?
Madeleine: My uterus loved it from front to back! As for the rest of me, I can appreciate her new “And Dream of Sheep” recording, but maybe that’s because of all the effort that went into it. It’s something tangible that I can experience along with her and not from a far.
Otherwise, not really. As we remarked on earlier, the originals are so good that it makes little sense to listen to a rerecording.
Rich: It’s cool that a song from The Ninth Wave, previously an uninterruptible suite, is a breakout single. The right choice, too, I think—“And Dream of Sheep” is my second favorite song on Hounds of Love.
This album has gotten really glowing reviews, which feels… not quite right. And yet, I’d rather live in a world where people refuse to even question Kate’s brilliance than one in which she is overlooked, as she spent years before Hounds of Love being mocked by the music press as a novelty or joke. So I’m happy that we’ve gotten here, even if the recent vessels don’t quite astound me.
Madeleine: This is definitely one of those cases where reviews are more of a reflection of the excitement of her return rather than the album itself, I think. But I agree with you completely—I will take Kate Bush anyway she allows us to receive her. Besides, even the worst Kate Bush is better than 98% of the other things I’ve listened to in the past few years.
Rich: There’s a line in Graeme Thomson’s biography Under the Ivy: The Life & Music of Kate Bush that I think nicely sums things up: “Before Kate Bush, there was no Kate Bush.” And even though her influence is immediately detectable in dozens of artists, there is still no Kate Bush but Kate Bush. There are few things I’m sure about in 2016, including the future of humanity, but I can say for certain that we are so lucky to have her, however she sees fit to share herself.