Finally, something for the grown-ups

'AERIAL': TRACK LISTING
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The Independent Online

Entire pop scenes and musical movements have budded, bloomed and withered in the interim - Oasis's first singles, for instance, appeared in 1994 - but such is the diminutive Kate's enduring artistic stature that the forthcoming double-album has prompted a feverish flurry of record-company attention on its behalf. Some would consider their concern paranoiac - only last week, I was accosted like a shoplifter in the street by an EMI security guard, for the terrible crime of believing that the lyric-sheet I had been given at a playback of the album was mine to keep. Apparently, none shall know of Her words until the two discs are actually brought down from the mountaintop to the record shop. But we'll let that pass.

The more pertinent concern is whether her music remains relevant in a music landscape that has seen Britpop come and go, grunge atrophy into skate-metal, hip-hop conquer the known world, and talent-contest TV reduce chart pop to a production-line of vacuity. Changes flash by ever more rapidly in the modern, computer-assisted music world, and in decoupling from its dizzy progress for a dozen years, Kate Bush runs a serious risk of getting flattened like a hedgehog crossing a motorway upon her return.

Extraordinarily, she manages to traverse both carriageways with only superficial damage to a few spines: indeed, such is the idiosyncratic nature of her work that she could probably disappear for a half-century and still sustain her own unique position in the pop firmament. But then, who else would write about an obsessive-compulsive housewife or attempt a vocal duet with trilling birds, or, in the most courageous of the album's many unusual strategies, sing huge strings of numbers, a gambit that brings new meaning to the old critic's chestnut about being happy to listen to someone singing the telephone directory?

The only track so far available from the album, the single "King Of The Mountain", employs references to Elvis and Citizen Kane to illustrate her musings upon fame and wealth and isolation. "Why," she wonders, "does a multi-millionaire fill up his home with priceless junk?" The rest of the album - particularly the extended song-cycle that occupies the entire second disc - seems like her own suggestion as to how to use that lofty position more profitably, in a spiritual and aesthetic manner. A reggae lilt underscored with misty synthesiser textures, "King Of The Mountain" has the gently insistent quality that proved so effective on several of her previous singles.

The picture adorning the single's sleeve is by Bush's young son, "lovely, lovely Bertie", whose presence toddles joyously through much of the new album, clearly illuminating her world. Many years ago, back near the start of her career, she regarded the domestic demands of motherhood as a dubious prospect, claiming her work was her love, and how could she do that and bring up a child at the same time? The answer, presumably, was not to work for a dozen years.

Ironically, childhood - and particularly the struggle not to relinquish it - has always been one of the driving concerns of Bush's work, an itch discernible in tracks as obvious as "In Search of Peter Pan" (from 1978's Lionheart) and as oblique as "The Fog" (from 1989's The Sensual World), where her father at one point advises her to "Just put your feet down, child/'Cos you're all grown up now". When asked about this aspect of her work, she has always freely admitted being like a little girl in many ways, and furthermore, happily presumes she'll still be that way in her dotage. It's certainly still a factor on Aerial, both in the track "Bertie" itself and in the memories and reminiscences that cobweb some other songs. But compared to the darker corners of the mind sometimes mined in earlier songs, the new album seems a much sunnier affair: an enduring image I took away from it - not necessarily a lyric, though it might have been - was of windows flung wide open, their curtains billowing out in the breeze, a room's long-dormant dust stirred into life again.

Another significant concern in Bush's work has been sexuality, both in codified, metaphorical form, and more explicitly in tracks like "Feel It", "In The Warm Room" and most obviously "The Sensual World", where she emulates Molly Bloom's soliloquy from Ulysses (she had wanted to simply quote from Joyce's novel, but the publisher's demurral forced her to devise her own equivalent reverie). She's unafraid, too, of tackling more problematic areas of sexuality, as for instance when she dealt with cradle-snatching in "The Infant Kiss" and incest in "The Kick Inside". But not all that seems erotic in her music is about sex, as an EMI employee discovered when he found her working on the hypnotic "out-in-out-in" chant section of "Breathing" (from 1980's Never For Ever), and expressed outrage at EMI's young pop princess making such an overtly sexual record. The song is, of course, about breathing. Duhhh!

This is perhaps the main area where Bush is less relevant than she once was, for all her obvious influence on such soul-baring doyennes of sexual openness as Tori Amos, Sinead O'Connor and Björk. Since she was last involved, the bar on female sexual expression has been booted so much higher - or dragged lower, depending on your viewpoint - by the brazenly pornographic contributions of hip-hop and R&B divas, whose revelations would make Hugh Hefner blush. But in doing so, they have also scoured away the elements that brought the most interesting frissons to Bush's take on sexuality - the entire spiritual aspect, most notably, but also the notion of sexuality as something to be attained, something to build up to, a most satisfying mountain to scale.

Not, of course, that Kate Bush has ever really been writing for the same market as Lil' Kim or Mousse-T or whoever it was who went on so charmingly about licking her booty and her crack. Bush has always been a nice middle-class girl writing for other nice middle-class girls (and boys) who wouldn't necessarily be put off by references to writers such as James Joyce and the Brontë sisters, or oddball mystics and weirdos like GI Gurdjieff and Wilhelm Reich, and who wouldn't balk at hearing non-pop musicians such as Eberhard Weber, the Trio Bulgarka and, er, Rolf Harris.

It's not an exclusively middle-class constituency, but it is one that exults in exercising the mind rather than just the body, that finds greater liberation in the imagination than in raucous, boozy indulgence. One that reads, in other words. And although it sometimes seems as if it's been completely obliterated by the waves of corporate dumbed-down drivel that routinely crams the airwaves, it's a massive audience lain long dormant, forced to subsist on the drab pablum of Keane and David Gray until something more substantial comes along.

At around an hour and a half, Aerial is unquestionably a substantial piece of work, and its manifold peculiarities and quirks offer much more interesting fare than that available from today's AOR mainstream. It's also a more mature undertaking than any of her previous albums, an extended meditation on art and light, fame and family, creativity and the natural world. Indeed it seems, come to think of it, like an expansion of the theme of Laura Veirs' gorgeous "Rapture". And since that was the finest song of last year, I'd have to say that leaves Kate Bush still operating at the cutting-edge of intelligent adult pop, every bit as relevant now as at any point in her career. Just a little bit weirder, thank heavens.

Disc 1

1. King Of The Mountain

2. Pi

3. Bertie

4. Mrs Bartolozzi

5. How to be Invisible

6. Joanni

7. Coral Room

Disc 2

1. Prelude

2. Prologue

3. An Architect's Dream

4. The Painter's Link

5. Sunset

6. Aerial Tal

7. Somewhere In Between

8. Nocturn

9. Aerial

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