Kate Bush was discovered by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour as a teenager, and 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
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.
Never For Ever
On Never For Ever Bush combines the memorable hooky songs of The Kick Inside with the textural weirdness of Lionheart, essentially creating the template for her subsequent career. While she’s experimenting with the Fairlight CMI synthesizer that would define her later 1980’s works on tracks like ‘All We Ever Look For’, she’s largely working in a conventional band setup with orchestral backing.
These songs are often romantic and sensual, and feature typically offbeat subjects; ‘Breathing’ concerns a fetus in a nuclear holocaust, while ‘The Infant Kiss’ is a taboo tale of attraction. ‘Blown Away (For Bill)’ is a tribute to her lighting engineer who was killed on an onstage accident, while there’s one straightforward, memorable single with the forthright ‘Babooshka’, which mixes tense verses with a big dramatic chorus.
Brimming with imagination and memorable melodies, Never For Ever would be a career peak for many artists, but Bush would grow even further with her next two albums.
A lot of Kate Bush’s work has a cinematic feel, but it’s most apparent on The Dreaming; its ten diverse songs are like evocative mini movies. There’s the story of a Viet Cong guerilla in ‘Pull Out The Pin’ and the Aboriginal Australia of the title track, while the tracks range from the music hall of ‘There Goes A Tenner’ to the tenseness of ‘Get Out Of My House’.
First single and lead off track ‘Sat In Your Lap’ is arguably the boldest step here; almost devoid of commercial appeal and full of jarring rhythms and awkward chants, it sets the adventurous tone for the album. On ‘Night of The Swallow’ Bush rasps out the verse, before a plethora of traditional Irish instruments provide impetus for the soaring chorus. The angry ‘Get Out Of My House’ is a dark album closer, with a unique coda where Kate and her brother Paddy engage in a bizarre folklore reference duel; “I will not let you in/I face toward the wind/I change into the mule/Hee-haw, Hee-haw.”
The more conventional piano balladry of ‘All The Love’ would have slotted in fine onto The Kick Inside, but most of this material is utterly unique. The end result isn’t particularly coherent, and it hasn’t dated particularly gracefully, but overall The Dreaming contains some of the most creative music of its era. Bush takes more risks and covers more stylistic territory than some bands do in their entire careers, and it’s not surprising that there are a few rough edges. The Dreaming failed to generate a hit single or sell many copies, but Bush roared back into the mainstream with her next album.
Hounds of Love
After the artistically satisfying but commercially disappointing The Dreaming, Bush took some time out from music, then constructed a studio at her parents’ house so that she could work at her own pace. Often these tracks started as demos, with Bush layering additional instrumentation over them herself. While Hounds of Love is as wonderfully bizarre as the rest of Bush’s discography, it’s her most consistent and accessible album. Lead single ‘Running Up The Hill’ is about typically sensual and eccentric subject matter for Bush, but it’s a rhythmic monster, and her biggest chart hit of the 1980’s.
The album has two distinct sides – the first side is accessible and dance oriented, with huge sounding productions like ‘Running Up That Hill’ and ‘The Big Sky’. The first side’s highlight, though, is ‘Cloudbusting’, with its driving string riff and typically esoteric subject matter – psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich’s rain-making machine.
The second side of Hounds of Love is a mini concept album about a woman drowning, and is much more introspective. ‘Waking the Witch’ is genuinely creepy, while the climax of ‘Morning Fog’ is beautiful. ‘Hello Earth’ casts her in an afterlife where she can hold the world in the palm of her hand, while ‘Morning Fog’ is her final farewell to her family. The title ‘Morning Fog’ is derived from The Bible (James 4:14: “For your life is like the morning fog–it’s here a little while, then it’s gone.”).
It’s an indication how strong Hounds Of Love is that the 1998 remaster adds six very strong bonus tracks – ‘Under The Ivy’ is gorgeous, ‘Burning Bridge’ could have been a single, and there’s breathtaking a capella of the traditional ‘My Lagaan Love’.
Hounds of Love brilliantly balances Bush’s weirdness with commercial appeal, and stands as the peak of her strong discography.
The Whole Story
1986, not rated
Kate Bush is an album artist, and reducing her discography to a 12 song compilation doesn’t work, even though The Whole Story does a good job of picking her best material. The exceptions are the two difficult selections from 1982’s The Dreaming, which don’t work well on a compilation. The compilation is noteworthy for a strong new song (‘Experiment IV’) and a version of ‘Wuthering Heights’ with a newly recorded vocal.
The Sensual World
The Sensual World is far more constrained than Bush’s previous work. A lot of these songs coast by on atmosphere, and even ‘This Women’s Work’, one of the strongest pieces here, has an arrangement and sentiment that is far more mainstream than anything Bush had released previously.
The most interesting new sonic element on The Sensual World is The Trio Bulgarka. The three female Bulgarian singers even bring life to the ‘Deeper Understanding’, a dated tribute to Kate’s computer, but they’re exceptional on ‘The Rocket’s Tail’. David Gilmour also contributes surprisingly energetic guitar attack to ‘Love and Anger’ and ‘Rocket’s Tail’. Highlights include the melodic ‘Love and Anger’, the beautiful piano ballad ‘This Woman’s Work’, and ‘Rocket’s Tail’ which launches into a full band arrangement after a lengthy a capella prelude.
There’s good material on The Sensual World, but it’s one of Bush’s weaker efforts overall; when I return to it I usually just cherry-pick the highlights rather than listen to it in entirety.
The Red Shoes
Until recently I’d always avoided The Red Shoes, as it generally has a reputation as one of Bush’s weaker albums. To its detriment, it does feel bloated and commercially oriented – with 12 songs running for almost an hour, and stacked with guest cameos from Eric Clapton, Prince, and Jeff Beck. But fundamentally, the songs here are strong, and it’s a much more consistent album than The Sensual World, even if the commercial production can be distracting.
The Red Shoes is often informed by heartache; Bush lost her mother and her guitarist Alan Murphy, while she’d also ended her long-term relationship with bassist and engineer Del Palmer. This heartache permeates songs like the beautiful ‘Moments of Pleasure’, with its gorgeous piano figure, while Bush plays guitars and bass on the angry ‘Big Stripey Lie’.
While some of the guest appearances are dispensable, the Prince collaboration on ‘Why Should I Love You’ is a highlight, with Prince production and a memorable organ riff. There are more left-field surprises on the funk beat of ‘Constellation of the Heart’ and the bouncy ‘Eat The Music’
It’s certainly not a masterpiece on the level of The Dreaming or The Hounds of Love, but there is plenty of strong material on The Red Shoes, and it feels like it’s been undervalued in Bush’s discography. Bush didn’t release another studio album for 12 years while she raised her son, while she later reworked many of these tracks on 2011’s The Director’s Cut.
After a twelve year absence, during which she married and raised a son, Bush re-emerged with a double album in 2005. Intriguingly, it both reflects her domesticity and is more deeply weird than the albums immediately before she went on hiatus, which sacrificed some of her personality. A case in point is ‘Mrs. Bartolozzi’, a sensual song about her washing machine. While Aerial sometimes uses light dance beats, its textures are largely gentle and acoustic.
Like The Hounds of Love, Aerial has two distinct halves. The first half is named ‘A Sea of Honey’ and it consists of standalone songs. Some are personal, like the medieval flavoured ‘Bertie’, about Bush’s son, while there are also tributes to Joan of Arc and Elvis. There’s the gorgeous piano driven ‘A Coral Room’, while ‘Pi’ finds Bush reciting the digits of the titular number.
The first disc is strong, but it’s the second disc, ‘A Sky of Honey’, that’s more impressive. A disc long suite about the outdoor experiences of 24 hours, from sunrise to sunrise, its typically creative textures include birdsong and Rolf Harris’ didgeridoo. The highlight is the dramatic ‘Nocturne’ with its memorably goofy line “We stand at the Atlantic, and we become panoramic”, while ‘Aerial Tal’ brings Aerial to a suitably climactic conclusion, with Bush’s swooping vocal performance one of the few intense moments on a gentle album.
Its often subtle, but Aerial is full of beautiful and graceful ideas, and constitutes a very impressive comeback for Bush after years away from the limelight; it’s easily her strongest album since The Hounds of Love.
50 Words For Snow
50 Words For Snow is unique in the Kate Bush canon – like the side long suite on The Hounds of Love and the disc long suite on Aerial stretched out to a lengthy 66 minute album. It’s very relaxed and uniform in feel, with all of the songs built around the theme of snow. Bush’s voice is huskier, while her key collaborator is veteran drummer Steve Gadd who gives these songs a jazzier feel than usual. I’ve heard the analogy of this album as the background for an art installation about snow and it’s apt.
50 Words For Snow is a difficult album to penetrate with its slow tempos and its lack of diversity, and it’s the songs with guest cameos that stand out. Elton John duets with Bush on ‘Snowed In At Wheeler Street’, and their emotional vocals fuel what is perhaps the disc’s highlight. Stephen Fry guests on the title track, inspired by the urban legend that Inuit have fifty words for snow, as he recites often tenuous synonyms for the white, cold, powdery stuff.
It’s difficult to select 50 Words For Snow as a career highlight given how strong the rest of Bush’s catalogue is, but it’s still a very satisfying record, with Bush still restless and exploring new ground into her fifties.
Cincinnati Babyhead Says:
I remember getting ‘Lionheart’ after the first album and liking it also. Being a Hammer Horror guy it was a no brainer. Like I said, I like her music and that continued onto this record.
I’ll leave you with this last comment on Kate. CB had a certain musical taste back when he first heard her. I didn’t have a lot of women artists in my record pile. My ear was totally drawn to her music and I didn’t have a choice. Her music appealed to me. Good tribute. We are on the same page with KB.
Favourite Ten Kate Bush Songs
Moments of Pleasure
Love and Anger
Running Up That Hill
Night of the Swallow
Snowed In At Wheeler Street
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