Kate Bush was discovered by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour as a teenager. She was placed into a training scheme by her record label EMI, where she was taken out of school and studied dance, mime, and music.
Bush quickly blossomed into an outstanding performer; her 1978 debut album, The Kick Inside, released at the age of 19 during the height of punk, was improbably accomplished and successful. It launched the soaring ‘Wuthering Heights’, which despite inspiration from classic literature and clear traces of progressive rock, stayed at number one for a month, making Bush the first female to reach number one of the UK Charts with a self-written song.
Bush’s second album, Lionheart, was rushed out later in 1978, and remains her weakest effort. But with 1980’s Never For Ever she found her feet, and since then she’s slowly built up an outstanding and unique catalogue of exquisite albums. Her peak albums were 1982’s The Dreaming and 1985’s The Hounds of Love, where she compiled most of the music on a Fairlight Synthesizer. But even her 21st century albums have been strong, and she’s one of the few artists where I’d recommend hearing everything she’s done. After years of refusing to tour, Bush performed a series of sellout shows in London in 2014.
Bush’s songs are often romantic, sometimes expressing sensual thoughts about unlikely items like washing machines and snowmen. In a 1980 list she named albums by auteurs like Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Captain Beefheart, and Stevie Wonder among her favourites, and it makes sense, although their influences are filtered through her own unique experiences; growing up with Irish folk music, a classical pianist father, and new age philosophies.
I’ve covered all of Bush’s studio albums below, apart from 2011’s The Directors Cut, which reworks songs from 1989’s The Sensual World and 1993’s The Red Shoes.
Kate Bush Album Reviews
Favourite Album: Hounds of Love
Overlooked Gem: Aerial
The Kick Inside
Kate Bush’s debut was released when she was a mere 19 years old, and a couple of the strongest tracks were recorded when she was only 16. Bush went on to make more ambitious and creative albums, but The Kick Inside is a stunningly assured debut. It’s homogeneous in texture, with sophisticated pop tunes inflected with theatrical and jazzy touches, but it’s expertly performed and arranged, and Bush is a unique enough front-woman to stop The Kick Inside from ever becoming generic.
It’s difficult to find too many direct influences on Bush’s style, even from this early stage she’s doggedly following her own path. Most of the song structures are relatively straightforward, but the lyrics are often controversial. The title track takes on incest, while there’s plenty of sexual imagery scattered among the lyrics; Bush obviously made use of the new boundaries set in the wake of The Sex Pistols and other punk bands in the late seventies, even if her music itself owes more to confessional singer-songwriters, mystic folk, and progressive rock complexity.
The tour de force here, and the song that launched Bush’s career, is ‘Wuthering Heights’. Making full use of Bush’s theatrical instincts and soaring vocals, the song places Bush in the role of Cathy from Bronte’s work; it’s approaching progressive rock in its ambition and scope, and ends with a soaring guitar solo that sounds like David Gilmour’s work in Pink Floyd. ‘Wuthering Heights’ is the towering achievement, but everything else is entertaining in a more modest fashion. ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes’ is an incredible song for a sixteen year old to write; the classy passing G chord during the “Ooh” makes the song, while the impressionist beauty of the voice, music and lyrics is breath-taking.
Bush has a talent for this pop-oriented material, and The Kick Insideis a very strong record, but Bush was only just getting started as she veered off into artier and more idiosyncratic territory with her next record.
While The Kick Inside was an excellent album, Bush reshaped the direction of her career with Lionheart. This time the focus is more on atmosphere and texture. Bush was pressured by her record company to come up with a new album, and only had time to write three new songs, and had to use earlier leftovers to fill up the album. Her singing is often grating and unpleasant, while the material lacks the memorable melodies and hooks that Bush displayed in abundance on her previous album.
None of the songs here rank among Kate’s best, while several are boring (‘In The Warm Room’) or almost un-listenable (‘Fullhouse’). Lionheart is not devoid of interest, and it has more personality than The Kick Inside but it goes off the deep end in the second half, and Bush herself dismisses it as sub par.
On this unwieldy album catchiest equates with best, and the best songs are ‘Wow’ and ‘Hammer Horror’. The former mostly functions as a showcase for Bush’s vocals, drawing the title word through her impressive range, although the piano-based verses are also pretty. ‘Hammer Horror’ is too bizarre for radio, but it’s memorable enough with Bush’s vocal histrionics. There are also pretty ballads; ‘Symphony in Blue’ gets the album off to a nice start, while ‘Oh England My Lionheart’ is humble and likeable. ‘Don’t Push Your Foot On The Heartbrake’ and ‘Coffee Homeground’ are weighed down by a mixture of annoying vocals, overarching cuteness and lack of melodic power.
Lionheart does give an indication of the more unique sides of Bush’s talent that apparent on The Kick Inside, and it’s a pointer to the direction her career would take. Despite being difficult, it will still interest established fans as it is hardly lacking in personality or creativity; just don’t start with it.
Hounds of Love is one of my favourite albums of all time. Masterpiece.
Thank you for doing this.
She’s a remarkable artist. She’s still relatively unknown in the US, but I think she will be inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame this year, which might peak interest. She’s the kind of artist that is difficult to penetrate at first, but time and patience yield great rewards. Her influence is immeasurable; however, as is typical in the misogynistic music industry, her writing, production and early stage performances are rarely mentioned.
Some songs have grown on me after years of listening to her. Among my favorites are “The Dreaming”, “”The Sensual World”, “Eat the Music” (which I didn’t like when the album came out), and the chilling songs “Get Out of My House” and “Under Ice”. Björk, a favorite of mine, listed The Dreaming on her selection of 15 favorite albums.
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