Twelve years is a long time between records, but we Kate Bush fans weren’t going anywhere. Lying dormant like musical Manchurian Candidates, we awoke with a start at the news of a new Kate Bush single, and then an album — a double album! — and finally a release date. So what if 1993’s The Red Shoes had been a bit disappointing? Her track record is otherwise stellar, and it’s been far too long since we’ve heard from the lady who, since 1978, has shown such an uncanny talent for balancing artistic daring and pop craft.
Aerial is worth the wait, but not for the reasons many might expect. It doesn’t find Kate Bush launching off for wild, uncharted waters (no strife laid bare like The Dreaming‘s “Get Out of My House” here), nor does it find Bush repeating herself. It’s undeniably a Kate Bush record — there’s no mistaking that voice, after all, or that totally unselfconscious dedication to her art — but one that takes leisurely steps forward, as if Bush were merely strolling along the stepping stones of some secluded garden. Some listeners may even be disappointed by its unassuming nature. Aerial is, after all is said and done, a quiet, content, and comfortable record, reflecting Bush’s years away from the spotlight during which she had a child and, according to her recent interviews, reveled in the mundane pleasures of everyday life.
It’s no surprise, then, that one of Aerial‘s strongest tracks is “Mrs. Bartolozzi”, which finds a widow, her husband’s clothes tumbling in her new washing machine, lost in visions both erotic (“I watched them going ’round and ’round / My blouse wrapping itself around your trousers / Oh the waves are going out / My skirt floating up around my waist”) and poignant (“I think I see you standing outside / But it’s just your shirt / Hanging on the washing line / Waving its arm as the wind blows by / And it looks so alive”). Similarly, “Pi” is about a “sweet and gentle and sensitive man / With an obsessive nature and deep fascination / For numbers / And a complete infatuation with the calculation / Of Pi”. But Bush goes past this simple character study to underscore the mysteries of mathematics simply by reciting the numbers of Pi between slight variations of the chorus. You wouldn’t think that would be very exciting, but by the time Bush is through stretching out some numbers and varying her rhythm and tempo with others, you’re half convinced that Pi is really some sort of sensual spell, that to find the end of it is to unlock some vital secret of the universe.
Reading even more like a spell (“Take a pinch of keyhole / And fold yourself up”) is “How to be Invisible”, which rides a propulsive rhythm that’s underscored by ghostly background vocals. And although it’s a relatively minor track, it exemplifies the level of nuance that Bush brings to Aerial. There aren’t any songs that strike you as instant masterpieces like “Hounds of Love”, “This Woman’s Work”, or “Wuthering Heights”, but nearly every song is solid. Even Bush’s ode to her son, “Bertie”, fares better than it should (has there ever been a more perilous listening experience than songs to artists’ own children?) due to a Renaissance-influenced arrangement and Bush’s trilling vocal approach.
Disc 2, titled “A Sky of Honey”, is a conceptual suite tied together with birdsong, images of creation, and a narrative path that traces the hours between afternoon and the following morning. “Prologue”, “The Architect’s Dream”, and “The Painter’s Link” flow together with painting imagery as they capture the day descending into sunset. Sunset lingers, though, even after the sun is gone, as songs like “Sunset”, “Aerial Tal” (which finds Bush impersonating birds with her own voice), and “Somewhere in Between” explore the fine gradations in mood and light that any evening can hold. Each of the songs found in “A Sky of Honey” easily stands as its own piece, but the disc is especially rewarding when heard from start to finish. As the disc progresses, its celebratory tone only grows, so that by the time “Nocturn” and “Aerial” close out the disc, as the dreamers are awakening and standing on the roofs, you can practically feel dawn’s rejuvenating powers.
Aerial is an exceedingly warm record, with a cozy, sun-bathed Sunday morning quality. Continuing with the lush style that she so quickly perfected on albums like Hounds of Love and The Sensual World, Bush shows that the twelve years she’s been away haven’t been filled with crises of identity, loss of the muse, or the lure of musical fads. Instead, Aerial shows that Kate Bush has been doing the same thing as the rest of us: just going about life, building on personal lessons a little bit each day. Even if Aerial doesn’t set the world on fire, it’s good to hear Kate Bush again, and to hear a record that sounds so organic and grounded.