Kate Bush - Constellation of the Heart
tylus Magazine‘s Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you’ve never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
Timelessness is an overrated quality, and “dated” an overrated slur, but “Constellation of the Heart,” the most time-frozen moment on The Red Shoes, is difficult to negotiate without noting that its faults—the tinniness that won’t resolve itself no matter what sound system you shove it through; the muddiness that is its twin; that stupid plastic-tube drum sound—are precisely the faults for which bad historians routinely condemn the musical output of the 1980s. And The Red Shoes was made in 1993—this is a song not only trapped in its time but dated to begin with. Yet the two moments within its five minutes that stand with Kate Bush’s finest have not tarnished beneath the rubble.
Despite the song’s musical stasis, one of Bush’s numerous and cavalierly shuffled lyrical concerns here is forward motion: the endlessly repeated chorus has telescopes being turned inside out and pointed towards the heart, “away from the big sky,” a direct reference to the Hounds of Love track and a disavowal of old subjects. If Bush considered her previous work expansive and generalized and The Red Shoes personal and folded-in, she was wrong; aside from the list of mourned dead on “Moments of Pleasure,” things here are not only not as odd and specific as Hounds of Love (that second side!) but deliberately manufactured for wideness and simplicity—Bush’s arrangements, increasingly arcane to this point, were here flattened and pruned to accommodate live performance, and if the life-is-unpredictable thesis of “Constellation of the Heart” takes more personal a form than older vignettes, it’s still as ancient and well-trod a subject as any, its telescopes no more closely trained on Bush than “She Loves You”’s were on Lennon and McCartney.
It is thus curious that this inaccurate manifesto should be the song’s second-finest moment. Tinny as it is, that swaying, intent chant—”We take all the telescopes and we turn them inside-out”—is viciously catchy, and its pleasure possessed of surprising longevity, capable of leaping unbidden to mind almost as often as the chorus to the song with which it contrasts itself. Bush’s delivery of the first few verses certainly isn’t bad, but one waits impatiently, repeatedly, for it to disappear; what we’re here for is that chant. It’s a kind of bubblegum—but no kind of bubblegum lasts forever, and Bush is alert enough after repeating it three times in the first two minutes to abandon it for the remaining three, and gracious enough to find something better. The sequence that enables “Constellation” to lurch into the most exalted zones of Bush’s canon comes halfway through, when with a flurry of those awful drums the song turns into a long and slow call-and-response: the thin voices of the chorus dispense a warning—”I think you’d better wake up, Captain / There’s something happening up ahead”—and offhand demands for elaboration precipitate a sudden shift of relationships:
I want a full report!This is the kind of quivering drama that threatens to cater to the worst in Kate Bush’s temperament, but on the crucial line—”What do you mean, that’s it?”—she neither exhales too precipitously nor tosses in extra octaves out of nervousness. She just lets her voice crack, once, briefly, recovering in time to swing “that’s it” along with the demands of the melody. For a moment she inflects imperiousness with surprise, and though she pulls herself together her querulousness marks an irrevocable change: the chanting multitudes cease to serve the singer and begin to lead her; they go from humbly waking her to declaring without sympathy that she’d better do something. By song’s end, when a multi-tracked Bush is remarking in the background that “just being alive / It can really hurt,” and the paternal chorus is assuring her that things are going to be beautiful, wonderful, paradise, quiet truth has been abandoned in favor of textbook excess, the telescopes turned back to the big sky.
What do you mean, that’s it?
THAT’S ALL YOU GET.
But for a moment they really were pointed inside, and everything—the hastily erected nautical metaphor; the shift in power; that little human quiver—was just so, and just right: there’s something coming, and we’re not saying what. Having such vagueness foisted on you is a definition, amongst only a few, of being alive. Expressed here it is timeless, and distilled timelessly, and does not die beneath its twelve fathoms of dusty ‘80s rock.