Tom Sutcliffe: Does Kate Bush deserve the five-star critics?
The week in culture
The phrase "critic-proof" isn't an approbatory one for most critics, for rather obvious reasons. Very few critics I know have any grand delusions about their influence, and no real expectations that what they say or write will result in a significant alteration to the culture. But we still don't much care for the idea that a work of art is entirely impervious to our reactions. So "critic-proof" tends to get used about bad art mostly – the kind of multiplex blockbuster which has a publicity budget larger than the gross national product of Belgium, or the latest volume of some vampire romance series which will have teenagers queuing round the block. And to say of these things that they are "critic-proof" is not to say that they are good, but that they are beyond criticism – which is only a syllable away from saying that they're beneath criticism. True, it's a bit sour-grapes-ish, but there's not a lot money in the critiquing business, so we like to console ourselves with the notion that we might at least be weighed in the scales, rather than ignored entirely.
Last week though I found myself thinking about another kind of critic-proof artist – the kind that has earned an indemnity rather than purchased it. And it was Kate Bush's latest album that did it. Called 50 Words for Snow, this is – for want of a better word – a concept album, on which virtually every song has a wintry theme. And it provoked in most broadsheet critics a paroxysm of rapture. I think I'm right in saying that The Times's critic docked a star, but with everyone else it was a five-star sweep. And since I'd spent several days listening to the album something didn't quite fit for me. It had its virtues, certainly, and I don't think anyone would deny the quality of the thing – in terms of performance and recording. But it seemed odd that a record so quirky – and so hazardously earnest – would generate such unanimity across the board. Rock critics aren't famously forgiving creatures, after all, and yet there were moments here that struck me as virtually impossible to listen to without laughing – such as the track on which Bush sings about a one-night stand with a snowman (she wakes to find that she's been left with a wet patch and a lot of twigs) or the title track, on which Stephen Fry has been enlisted to reverentially intone Bush's coinages (which include – and even my keyboard is blushing now – "shnamistafloppin", "boomerangablanca" and "swans-a-melting").
It could just have been me, I suppose. But looking at those reviews there seemed to be a disconnect between the star-ratings and the reviews themselves. It wasn't that anyone actually criticised Bush (or gave her the drubbing that most other artists could have looked forward to if they'd indulged themselves in similar ways). It was just that it wasn't all that easy to see why these critics had sent up that cascade of fireworks. The reviews seemed oddly descriptive of the endeavour and oddly determined to steer clear of any moments of embarrassment. It looked, in fact, as if Kate Bush was "critic-proof" in a different sense. Criticism wasn't something any of these writers really wanted to bring to bear on her.
From my perspective, of course, this initially looked like a failure of nerve. The point of criticism is that you say it even if nobody wants to hear it, even if nobody is going to listen. But thinking about it later I found myself wondering whether there wasn't something cherishable in Bush's exemption from the usual rules of the game, which would usually brutally propose that you're only as good as your last album. Those reviews – as concertedly benevolent and forgiving as I've seen for a long time – weren't really an abdication of critical duty. They were a review of a different kind – of a career which had carved out sufficient space for the odd error of judgement to be quietly set aside, without unseemly fuss.
I don't know what she'd have to do to break the spell – but judging from 50 Words for Snow she has quite a bit of leeway.
Reasons to be pretty wary of Wikipedia
It's axiomatic that one should be careful when consulting Wikipedia but I hadn't been aware until the other day that it had predictive powers. I wanted to check something relating to Reasons to Be Pretty, the excellent Neil LaBute play which has just opened in London. I looked at Wikipedia's entry the morning after the press night and was a little surprised to find it ended like this: "In 2011 it was successfully revived in London at the Almeida Theatre with a cast including award-winning UK actress Billie Piper [and others]. It opened to critical acclaim on the press night, 17th of November 2011 with reviewers claiming it 'was one of the best theatre productions' they had seen in 2011." No citation for the last remark, unfortunately. Digging a little deeper I discovered that the first half of this sentence had been edited into the entry on 5 November (five days before the play actually opened), though the tinkerer had at least waited until 18 November to add the second bit. And, to be fair, the critics were mostly impressed – though I'm not aware that they broke with tradition to issue a joint statement about the play's merits. Oddly, the IP addresses relating to these edits seemed to point to a Manchester address. So, who was the eager encyclopedist? A proud member of the production team? LaBute's mum? Or an over-excited Piper fan? Somebody more technically savvy than me might be able to find out. In the meantime, I'll be taking two pinches of salt with all theatre entries rather than the usual one.
Beware of the external spoiler
I've written before about spoilers and about how people get unduly worked up about them. If all a film or a book has going for it is the twist surprise, you're probably better off having it spoiled for you. I hadn't reckoned, though, with the external spoiler – a category I was reminded of this week. I'd been to see Jeff Nichols's film Take Shelter – an odd and timely film that addresses the subject of dread. The central character suffers from terrible premonitory dreams and, because his mother suffered from a mental illness, assumes that's what is coming towards him, too. But what if he really has become aware of a threat that others can't yet see? The film itself doesn't end where you expect it to – and, in deference to spoilerphobes I won't say any more than that. But after I'd come out of the screening someone mentioned on Twitter that the director had given an interview about his work, and implied that he'd cleared up exactly the ambiguity I'd relished in the film. I don't know whether that's actually the case, incidentally, because I did the social networking equivalent of putting my fingers in my ears and humming loudly. I don't care what Jeff Nichols thinks his film is about. And I absolutely don't want his definitive ruling on its meaning. Sometimes the worst spoilers aren't the ones that come before a movie, but the ones you bump into after you've seen it.
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