Monday, November 21, 2011

God Save The Queen

If ever you needed convincing that showbusiness is just that - show - something will come along to convince you.

Punk, we were told, was supposed to blast away at the gargantuans of rock and pop, and yet there is the fabled - and possible apocryphal - story of Topper Headon, drummer in The Clash, rushing up to Phil Collins at an airport to declare: "The other guys would kill me if they knew I was saying this, but I love your music."

On January 20, 1978 - two days after the Sex Pistols played their final show - Kate Bush released her debut single, a song as counter to the-then New Wave as it was possible to be.

After its tinkly, autumn leaves-a-fallin' piano intro came the opening line: "Out on the wiley, windy moors we'd roll and fold in green." This was clearly a different proposition to "I am an anti-Christ, I am an anarchist."

That single was Wuthering Heights. Inspired by the Emily Brontë novel, it launched one of the most extraordinary, idiosyncratic and artistically compelling careers in pop music, one which more than 30 years later has still only generated 10 studio albums - including the stunning 50 Words For Snow, which is released today.

With Adele blaring out of just about every shopping mall, Starbucks and, I discovered recently, North American restaurant, the idea of a gifted 19-year-old female singer-songwriter crashing the charts is today nothing new. In 1978, Kate Bush was alone. Six weeks after it was released Wuthering Heights went to No.1 in the UK, the first time a female singer had reached the top with a self-written song.

For a musician with such a frugal output and an even more reclusive profile, Bush was, for many years, the mainstay of womanhood in British rock music. For what seemed like an embarrassingly lengthy period, she was a semi-permanent nominee in the annual Brit Awards, battling yearly with Annie Lennox for the 'Best British Female' gong, only to be bothered occasionally by an Alison Moyet here and a Toyah Wilcox there. One year the award went to Tracey Ullman, who is an actress. Another year it went to Randy Crawford. Who is American. Not that there was anything wrong with either Bush or Lennox being rewarded so frequently. After all, their canon has deserved it.

So when, next February, the 2012 Brits are unveiled, it would be an extremely risk-averse individual who would bet against Bush and 50 Words For Snow featuring prominently. It is, without doubt, a high-watermark return for an artistry and eccentrically unfashionable approach to writing an album for popular consumption.

Comprising just seven songs, which vary in length from just under seven to 13 minutes, it is unlike anything else you'll hear this year. Including anything from Florence Welch.

Dare anyone else say it, but it's a concept album in principle, an album about winter. In that, it is a brave subject matter. Winter albums are usually Christmas tie-ins, made by cheesy game show hosts wearing Yule-themed knitwear, and containing a grisly assortment of the likes of Baby It's Cold Outside and Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree.

Then again, there is Walking In The Air from The Snowman50 Words For Snow probably comes closest to this. "I'd had this idea for some while to do a wintry album," Bush recently told The Independent's Andy Gill. "Pretty soon after I started writing for it, I homed in to the idea of snow," Bush told Gill. "It just seemed such a fascinating subject that it was very easy to think of so many ways of writing about it. It's such extraordinary stuff, isn't it? Even a single snowflake, when you look at it under a microscope, is such an incredibly beautiful thing. And apparently they are all different."

Take away thoughts of Mistletoe And Wine, or George Michael, Andrew Ridgeley, Pepsi and Shirley in a log cabin, and winter is indeed a very evocative season, and it lends itself well to Bush's signature Nymanesque, ambient piano which glistens throughout this album.

It is a gentle record, reflecting, perhaps, a 53-year-old mother of a growing boy. This continues a theme, commenced by her album The Kick Inside and continued on her last studio outing, Aerial, which was written primarily about living an ordinary, domesticated life in rural England with her teenage son Bertie and guitarist husband Danny McIntosh.

As an artist who has only toured once, her songs, her videos, her TV appearances have always trodden the boards of theatricality rather than the rock stage, and 50 Words For Snow is, arguably, Bush's most theatrical album, more the product of a dance studio, than the recording studio. Indeed, much of it feels like it had been written for choreography by Bush's hero, Lindsay Kemp.

Snowflake opens the album, with a dark, brooding piano motif and features young Bertie as narrator. It leads on to Lake Tahoe which, at eleven minutes long, is one that probably only Bush could attempt and succeed with, binding her sparse piano with a choral vocal arrangement in an apparent Victorian ghost story. You might want to read all that a second time to take it in. Having visited the real Lake Tahoe many times, in the deepest of wintry depths, I can now imagine this song as a haunting soundtrack to a moonlit walk along the lake's Californian shoreline.

The piano has often been disregarded as a jazz instrument, but when the late Richard Wright explained that the sonorous chord changes on Pink Floyd's Great Gig In The Sky were inspired by Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue, it all suddenly fell into better perspective for me. Thus on Misty - the album's thirteen-minute centerpiece - Bush builds a fleeting love story about a snowman (who are, let's face it, 'somewhat here today, gone tomorrow' cads), accompanied by the most warming of jazz vibes from contrabassist Danny Thompson (John Martyn's legendary sparring partner) and seasoned session drummer Steve Gadd.

Kate Bush's periodic visits to the avante garde neighborhoods of pop have been rightfully compared with those of Peter Gabriel, with whom she sang on his Games Without Frontiers, No Self Control and, of course, his prescient tale of 80s unemployment, Don't Give Up.

Though never romantically linked, it was that single's video which cemented in the minds of many that Gabriel and Bush were indeed a couple. They certainly are kindred spirits. Which is why, perhaps, it's no surprise to find Elton John - a long-time mentor - duetting with Bush on Snowed At Wheeler Street. This is Bush at her campest and downright belligerent.

Wheeler Street's story, should it matter, is of two star-crossed lovers who only ever meet at critical moments in world history. It is a song that, I imagine, Gabriel could have returned Bush the favour of Don't Give Up, but in picking up the story's male protagonist mantle, John delivers one of the best vocals of his recent career.

That, however, is it's best point. The story strains at the leash of credibility, just a tad, and does make you wonder whether Gabriel should have been at home, if and whether Bush had called. John's vocal performance - as good as it is here - reminds you why he's currently packing them in nightly in Las Vegas. Even for Bush and her trobairitz nature, it's a showtune wrapped in a bizarre cod-classical concept.

As if needing to chill out - no pun intended - after soaring dramas like Wheeler Street, there are more understated tracks on the album, such as the single, Wild Man, and the somewhat bizarre - even by a Kate Bush album's standards - title track. Bedded by a muted Latin drum rhythm reminiscent of Bush's 1981 hit Sat In Your Lap, it features the First Lord of Twitter himself, Stephen Fry, rattling off 50 words for, er, snow.

The track 50 Words For Snow is, I'm convinced, largely a joke based on Fry's polymathic quiz mastery on TV's Q.I., in which he (and, I suspect, a small battalion of researchers) bids to impress with a seemingly Poseidon-depth knowledge of trivia. Fry's mellifluous intonation recalls Viv Stanshall introducing the instruments on Tubular Bells, and in character - that of a Dr Joseph Yupik - adds another fatherly eccentric to Bush's writing (remember Cloudbusting, about cloudbusting scientist Wilhelm Reich, the video for which starred Donald Sutherland no less).

Ignoring the release, earlier this year of The Director's Cut (a somewhat inexplicable cut-and-shunt of Bush's Sensual World and The Red Shoes albums), the six-year wait since Aerial has been worth it. While such languid industry is easily eclipsed by the ten-year gaps between studio albums from Gabriel, and even longer from Leonard Cohen, there was always a fear amongst fans, on hearing about the wintry concept of 50 Words For Snow, that it would be a Christmas hits album, knocked out in time for Advent.

But that, frankly, wouldn't be Kate Bush. She denies being a perfectionist, and even earlier this year admitted annoyance at her apparent indolent output. "It's very frustrating the albums take as long as they do. I wish there weren't such big gaps between them."

In the periods between her ten albums, Queen Kate has seen plenty of pretenders come along to challenge her throne, whether it be Bjork for eccentricity, Tori Amos for trying too hard to be her, or Florence + The Machine for actually coming closest. In the end, though, there is only one Queen, only one monarch of a brand of pop music that nods a Victorian stovepipe hat to ballet, to musical theatre, to leather-bound tomes gathering dust on book shelves, a brand which will forever be intrinsically English.

She is, let's be honest,  a national treasure. Some years ago, as Bush was being presented with a lifetime achievement trophy at the Q Magazine Awards, even Liam Gallagher took to his feet to hail her. On stage, presenting the award was that spitting prince of punk, John Lydon. Engaged in an unexpected gush of mutual appreciation, he turns, half to the audience and says: "You know what Kate? We are worthy. Your music is fucking brilliant." Lydon's praise was no affectation. He even, once, wrote a song for Bush. About parrots. To date, she hasn't recorded it, though it must only be a matter of time.

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