With breaks in an artist’s discography come big expectations. On one side of this continuum you have David Bowie’s latest album The Next Day, which from the cover outwards is an expression on his newfound outlook on life as a mature artist. On another side you have Chinese Democracy, which is the single most OK album ever made. Aerial stays to the former and catapults over even Bowie, as whilst this album is so much about Kate Bush’s domestic life twelve years out of the media spotlight, it is still a quintessential Kate Bash record (to the point that the Pitchfork review was most disappointed that a Kate Bush album would have the temerity to be a Kate Bush album).
Though in this case we have not one record, but two. This is not surprising given the long wait between recordings, but what is surprising is how cohesive the whole eighty-one minutes are. Its closest comparison is obviously that of the similar yin/yang sided Hounds of Love, and whilst I personally don’t think the singles on this track are as strong as that record, the length of this record allows the second half conceptual piece to breathe, as a result sounding more like a whole work than even The Ninth Wave.
Despite my demi-semi-reservations about the more single driven first half, that isn’t saying much considering Hounds of Love has some of the most luxurious pop songs ever written. Aerial is similarly luxurious with its synths, but spaces out its instrumentation to the point that the first half is only seven tracks (this spacing out would continue in the slower 50 Words for Snow). This is apparent from the first rippling chords of “King of the Mountain” (appropriate for a side entitled “A Sea of Honey”). The first single from this album is Kate Bush getting her inner Gilmour on, with a title that wouldn’t be out of place in those classic prog-rock albums and lyrics perhaps pertaining to Kate’s long isolation from pop music. The guitars here are subdued and muted, as they are throughout the album, and Kate’s voice is as wonderful and expressive as it always one (though I did have to tune myself into her enunciations the first listen). An expressionist and wonderful way of starting this album off.
Those aforementioned rippling synths find themselves in “π”, and it’s here that Kate exposes what thematically this record is about: the joy in mundanity, the everyday and constant. That of course is a hard emotion to articulate in music; it is too easy to make that kind of music passionless – the utter death of art – and “π” certainly isn’t passionless, instead using an aesthetic reserved usually for love songs to express a different kind of passion for a mathematical constant. That more traditional love is reserved for her son in the song “Bertie,” which contrasts an Old English folk tune with an ode to her new-born, which along with the best string arrangement in a Kate Bush record since “Cloudbusting” even makes my callous heart warm up.
If I had to point to the song that most exemplifies what Aerial is “about”, it would Mrs. Bartolozzi. A ballad to the simple act of washing clothes, this track is an illustration that, although she most exemplified her James Joyce influence in The Sensual World, Aerial is her Ulysses: a huge expansive piece of art taking place over a day that is a means to mythologise the mundane. We need more art like this, because to paraphrase Don Hertzfeldt: “this is your life, and the unusual part is all the time spent doing other things”. And although constantly singing “Washing Machine” at the top of her voice is so close to getting to James Hetfield “I AM A TABLE” territory, Kate thankfully doesn’t go over that edge.
The second half of the first album has the most overtly emotive tracks on the album, starting with the dark synth instrumentation of “How to be Invisible”, whose imagery and instrumentation could probably make an interesting double-bill with Radiohead’s “How to Disappear Completely” (though sounds more like a Portishead song). The next is where the mythologizing of the mundane is at its most mythic, a feedback-filled track about Joan of Arc that has some simultaneous sludgy and energetic synth riffs that moves into an absolutely gorgeous drum-machine/guitar led outro.
Like “This Women’s Work,” Kate Bush leaves her most emotive and powerful song for the final track of the disc (and, unlike The Sensual World, keeps it that way). “A Choral Room” is about the death of Kate Bush’s mother, and unlike other great ballads like “A Man with a Child in His Eyes,” and indeed many Kate Bush songs, benefits from utter simplicity, leaving the instruments to just a piano in the echoing halls. An intimacy only broken – to great effect – by the inclusion of a male choral voice towards the end. A devastatingly beautiful final track to the first disc of this album.
Which leads with the final track, and the second disc: “An Endless Sky of Honey”. Now this not exactly true, as first pressings of this disc did actually come with names for different parts of the piece (again, like Ulysses there were chapter heading that were taken away). But unlike The Ninth Wave – which although brilliant and of a whole piece has more obvious changes to new tracks – this lends itself to a long and singular listen. My best recommendation of listening to “An Endless Sky of Honey,” which begins with Birdsong as the previous track did with mountains (thus leading to the album cover, among the most clever album covers I have ever seen), is to listen to the whole thing outside staring at the sun, for this may be the most picturesque piece of music of the whole Kate Bush oeuvre.
As this is a long piece I will try my best to describe my favourite moments from every part of this forty two minute opus. After Kate Bush’s bird calls over the sound of her own child’s voice (who would go on to have a great voice of his own, spoiler alert), we get the piano-led “Prologue”, with repeating guitar chords that are as constant as the wind. This moves seamlessly into the strong, percussive “Architects Dream,” whose bongo drums are wonderfully complimented with high noted synth and guitar strings.
“A Painter’s Lick” is indicative is the biggest problem of this piece in hindsight, which would be the tones of one notorious scum-bag Rolf Harris being included (previously he lent his didgeridoo playing to “The Dreaming”). Later on in “An Endless Sky…”, when I hear Rolf Harris’ voice saying “It’s raining,” I finish that sentence in my head with “…on our parade” (seriously, separate art from artist and whatnot, but fuck you Rolf Harris with seconds of awkward listening. And for “Christmas in the Sun”). But anyway, after that we get the amazing acoustic bass sounds of “Sunset,” which is the closest Kate Bush has gotten to something that could be found on a jazz album. This segues gracefully into “Aerial Tal,” a latin influenced piece that is probably the most upbeat moment on the entire album (at least in a traditional sense).
All of which brings us into the finale half, consisting of the three tracks: “Somehere in Between”; “Nocturn” and the titular track, “Aerial”. I said before on The Sensual World that the final three tracks of that record added up to one of the most beautiful finales on an album, and here that is just as true. First we get the amazing synth tones of “Somewhere in Between,” which stunningly layers on male and Kate vocals with acoustic guitar and string to create a crescendo of elegance. The synths then move into the sound of “Milky, silky water” for “Nocturn,” which also has some amazing pulsating guitars and a prominent but not overdone percussion side. The high hats are delicately played and intricately layered, but then transform into large beats of snares and bass drums as we move on to our “Aerials” finale. Combining almost every highlight that came before: rippling synths; folkish and Latin instruments; birdsong and other moments of absolute joy. The main point of ecstasy in this finale is how this is all accompanied with the simple sounds of her laughter to create an elation comparable to being in said Sky of Honey, and when those guitars abruptly end the effect is breathtaking.
Kate Bush came back into the music world with one of the strongest albums in her entire career, only not beating out Hounds of Love and The Dreaming in my book (and I don’t know how much of this is nostalgia driven). Her celebration of simplicity is as magnificently covered here as her celebrations of excess are elsewhere in her discography. Kate managed to come back and do so on her own terms, and the world blesses her for it. And speaking of her own terms, Kate Bush’s next project would be exclusively that…
What did you think of the album, though?
Kate Bush Album Rankings
1. Hounds of Love
1. The Dreaming
4. Never for Ever
5. The Sensual World
7. The Red Shoes