Kate Bush – The Whole Story
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That’s why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
What moved me to purchase Kate Bush’s first (and only, to date) best-of? David Bowie. More specifically, I remember reading, during one of my periodic Lodger binges, that Bush was the closest thing we have to “a female David Bowie.” (Kate Bush fans, take a moment here to let the full, insulting impact of that one settle in.) Imagine my surprise, then, when after a number of listens to The Whole Story I started thinking of Bowie as a “male Kate Bush,” chronology notwithstanding.
Comparing Bush to Bowie and expecting one to register as “better” is, of course, reductive and beside the point for anyone except neophytes. But this kind of negative portrait can be even more illuminating than a positive one in limning just why Kate Bush was—and is—so special. As we induct her into the Stylus Hall of Fame, there are sure to be deserved plaudits aplenty this week (and a few jabs as well), so rather than retread that ground I’d like to look at her in terms of someone she’s actually very different from: Bowie.
The first thing that struck me was the surface reason for the “female Bowie” tag; admittedly, The Whole Story is a compilation covering eight years of work, but the range displayed here is certainly reminiscent of the man who went from “Life on Mars?” to “Station to Station” in five. Fresh off of Lodger’s “African Night Flight,” the most immediately impressive track on The Whole Story is the Aborigine phantasmagoria of “The Dreaming,” hitting especially hard on the heels of the dystopia of “Experiment IV” and “Sat in Your Lap”’s tantrum-filled quest for knowledge. Like Bowie, Bush plays both colonized and colonizer in “The Dreaming,” running over the natives in her Jeep and listening to the trees breathe. But Bush got a lot closer than Bowie; while the thready, nervous pulse of “African Night Flight” puts you in touch with an interloper slowly losing his grip and merging with the land, “The Dreaming” puts you in that Jeep at midnight, unsure of what’s going on.
What it comes down to, I think, is a certain kind of sincerity. No, I’m not accusing Bowie of “not really meaning it” (how boring, how shallow); it’s just that the way he means it inextricably involves poses, roles, affectation. It’s part of what makes him great—and what makes Bush at least his equal is that she truly seems to be a chameleon, launching herself into her songs with a conviction that Bowie doesn’t just lack, but must lack if he’s to be successful. Bowie plays roles; even when Bush is singing as the doomed scientist in “Experiment IV” it never seems as if she’s inhabiting a persona.
This is a woman who, as The Whole Story reminds us, started and (in chart terms) capped her career with a song sung from the perspective of the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw. “Wuthering Heights” only improves with the new vocal Bush recorded for the best-of, but it remains a deeply creepy song. The possessiveness in Bush’s voice makes it a better single; you can hear how it could be mistaken for romantic cheese if not for Bush’s full-throated performance. Similarly, “The Man With the Child in His Eyes” and the anti-war “Army Dreamers” skirt the edges of aging very poorly, the former only by dint of a French horn. But “Army Dreamers” gets around the formulaic nature of its lyrics with Bush’s sonic inventions, marrying the ratcheting sound of preparing a rifle with an intricate, almost Elizabethan arrangement that sounds like a string quartet constantly preparing to warm up.
Given the vast riches already present in her discography it’s outright bizarre that this disc is limited to 48 minutes, but the selection is interesting and telling. The then-recent Hounds of Love provides three tracks, but Bush’s Fairlight synth tour de force is only raided for the accessible first half (admittedly, where would you shoehorn in “Waking the Witch” or “Jig of Life”?). But even on these big, broad gestures Bush is more oblique than Bowie ever was—and more sinister. Ultimately, Bowie never had a stance towards the listener that was any more oppositional than, say, a tour guide. Bush seemed dangerous. If it’s impossible to say what’s going on in “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God),” it’s also impossible to claim that Bush’s intent towards the “you” in the song is unambiguously positive.
And so it goes. On the claustrophobic post-apocalypse of “Breathing,” the cruelly mocking “Wow” (never have the words “Ooh, yeah, you’re amazing / We think you are really cool” been so wince-inducing), and even on the steady strings-and-synthesizer pulse of “Cloudbusting,” Bush consistently leaves the story tantalizingly half-told while managing to commit to the song fearlessly and wholly. It makes her easy to mock (have you seen the video for “Wuthering Heights”?), but also admirable; “Cloudbusting” may be partly about the cracked psychiatrist and scientist Wilhelm Reich but by the time Bush is singing “I just know that something good is going to happen / And I don’t know when / But just saying it could even make it happen,” you’re willing it along with her.
The Whole Story is maddeningly scattershot and incomplete in scope (and not just because it cuts out after Hounds of Love). But it’s also an excellent introduction to Kate Bush’s work. By placing all of her best-known tracks in one place, it renders the listener unable to ignore the fact that even her “hits” are far weirder and more chimeric than she’s often given credit for, that this is one of the few towering figures of Art provided by pop music that actually exceeds rather than pales beside her reputation. While Bowie may be the one with the storied drugs ’n’ Satanism lifestyle, Bush’s music sounds a lot more dangerous, and that frisson of never quite knowing if she’s on your side combined with the fierce intelligence she shows even when laughing at herself makes these songs a whole lot more than some of the best pop of the ’80s—The Whole Story shows many times over she’s a lot more than the female anything.
By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2007-04-19