Róisín Murphy, “Overpowered”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #87 – released October 11, 2007)

Track listing: Overpowered / You Know Me Better / Checkin’ On Me / Let Me Know / Movie Star / Primitive / Footprints / Dear Miami / Cry Baby / Tell Everybody / Scarlet Ribbons / Body Language / Parallel Lives

Although she’s crafted an enviable discography over the past few decades, to most, Róisín Murphy remains buried treasure crying out for excavation. Born in Ireland and having spent her teenage years in Manchester, England, she first found fame as the vocalist of Moloko, a dance duo she formed with romantic partner Mark Brydon in 1995. Early songs like “Fun For Me” (whose video actually got a few spins on MTV’s 120 Minutes) had them initially lumped in with other UK female-fronted trip-hop acts such as Morcheeba, Portishead and Sneaker Pimps; in time, they were scoring huge fin de siècle Euro-hits like “Sing It Back” and “The Time is Now” while barely making an imprint in the US (hard to do when your albums (apart from your debut) don’t even get released there.)

Brydon and Murphy split both personally and professionally after their fourth album, 2003’s Statutes—its ambitious sweep yet fine-honed pop-sense revealed how much their music had blossomed in just under a decade. Rather than logically craft a dance floor-ready follow-up, Murphy worked with experimental producer Matthew Herbert on her solo debut, Ruby Blue (2005). Herbert’s sample-heavy technique, where found sounds such as a whirring blender or a clinking bottle are as much a part of the mix as traditional instruments, was pushed to the fore; Murphy welcomed it with open arms, devising songs both relatively user-friendly (“Through Time”) and Kate Bush-level bonkers (“Ramalama Bang Bang”, which ended up becoming Murphy’s most heard song in the States when it accompanied a performance on the reality-TV competition show So You Think You Can Dance?)

For solo album # 2, Murphy moved from indie label Echo Records to major conglomerate EMI and made what is still to-date her most accessible, pop-friendly record, Overpowered. Of course, even at her most straightforward, Murphy can’t help but exude otherness (if you have any doubts, take another look at that album cover.) After a brief preview of its chorus hook (“When I think that I am over you, I’m overpowered”), the title track opens with the words, “Your data my data / the chromosomes match” robotically sung over a bed of squishy synths (I always thought it was “You’re dating my daughter,” which I kinda prefer.) Cerebral lyrical content (“These amaranth feelings / a cognitive state”) mash together with the overtly sensual music (harp glissandos dancing on top of the more grounded electronics; a five-note Yaz-worthy hook repeated throughout.) It’s catchy and confined, yet also teeming with negative space provided by its airy melody and minute-plus instrumental coda.

From there, Murphy reels out one relatively concise, disco-flavored dance-pop gem after another. “You Know Me Better” is as effervescent as early Madonna but with stronger vocals, an excess of hooks (like that recurring tinkling piano) and unstoppable momentum. “Checkin’ On Me” jumps forward a few years to circa-1990 mid-tempo, Lisa Stansfield-esque, blue-eyed Philly soul: her precise syncopation with the song’s jazz-funk rhythm lends it shape and verve while never, um, overpowering the arrangement’s irresistible horn-and-string interjections. “Let Me Know” tricks you into believing it’s a languorous piano ballad before the synth-beat kicks in at the thirty-second mark, transforming it into something worthy of Donna Summer circa Bad Girls.

Having established her pop-star credentials in just four songs (all of which were singles except for “Checkin’ On Me”), Murphy spends the rest of Overpowered slyly expanding what her definition of pop can contain and acknowledge. “Movie Star” goes for wall-of-sound-banger-grandeur, building almost an entire song out of a simple, incessant, some-might-say-relentless two-note analog synth hook over which, Alison Goldfrapp-like, she coos lyrics such as, “You’ll be director / and I’ll be your movie star.” “Footprints” pays loving homage to ’80s Latin freestyle and R&B but not in an obvious, cut-and-paste way; rather, she puts her own spin on it, especially whenever she recites the line, “It drives me crazy when you play these games,” in a near-bratty tone. “Dear Miami” sustains the electro-Latin influence, her reverb-enhanced vocals floating all over the mix, which one could almost call hazy or fuzzed-out if not for the itchy pulse of the keyboards or distorted guitars forever lurking in the background. “Tell Everybody” gets its oomph from a rhythm track heavy with onomatopoeic vocal effects (a hallmark of its producer, Jimmy Douglass), which is enough to hold interest until Murphy gets to the brash, triumphant chorus, where the melody opens up and the song’s working parts gel into a massive whole.

Although Overpowered features multiple producers and collaborators, Douglass’ work arguably bears the sweetest fruit. In addition to “Tell Everybody” and “Checkin’ On Me”, he also produced album highlight “Primitive”. Coming directly after the all-encompassing “Movie Star”, it allows the listener some breathing space with its minimal synth, drum machine and sampled, single-vocal-syllable foundation. “From the primordial soup / out of the dim and the gloom we came,” Murphy begins, before declaring, “We are animals” in a decidedly more forceful way than Olivia Newton-John did at the climax of “Physical”. However, it’s merely build-up for the glorious chorus where Murphy pleads, “I just want to get you out of your cave, man!” On the page, the lyric reads as a silly pun, but when she sings it, loudly, almost scarily, even, you immediately comprehend that any dismissal would be futile. You could call Murphy a vamp, a seductress, a confidant, a co-conspirator, but no matter what each song requires her to get across, she’s always frighteningly convincing.

Apart from “Cry Baby”, a monochromatic, nearly six-minute riff on what she already perfected on “Movie Star”, Overpowered is Murphy’s best album by fiat of being filler-free, and that includes its most atypical track. “Scarlet Ribbons”, the album’s original finale, is a bass-heavy, Sade-like slow dance ballad. Although Murphy nearly overplays her hand with potentially sappy father-daughter lyrics (e.g., “I’ll always be your little girl”), her ease and apparent vulnerability keep things in check. Most editions of Overpowered also contain two bonus tracks; they’re inessential but are not are exactly filler, either. “Body Language” gets considerable mileage out of its motor-disco beat, while “Parallel Lives” has a conveyor-belt rhythm track that complements its tart, soulful melody quite nicely.

Despite its major-label push, inventive music videos and hooks aplenty, Overpowered still sold less than 75,000 copies in the UK and never even received a formal US release (I remember having to buy it as an import on Amazon.) Its failure to connect is somewhat astonishing when within two years, Lady Gaga would become the biggest pop star in the world with an awfully similar visual aesthetic and songs that could’ve been carbon copies of “Movie Star”. Not to completely disparage Gaga’s 2009-11 run of iconic singles, but I can easily imagine an alternate universe where “Let Me Know” and “You Know Me Better” were as ubiquitous as “Poker Face” or “Bad Romance”.

I think the reason for Gaga’s and Murphy’s commercially divergent paths comes down to this: whereas Gaga painted and explicitly marketed herself as an “eccentric”, Murphy, crazy costumes aside, was more the real deal—a perpetual weirdo who didn’t need to call one of her albums Artpop to fully inhabit and commit to both halves of that compound description. While Gaga would conquer the pop charts over the next few years, Murphy almost entirely disappeared from the industry. We’ll return to her when she returns: on her own terms, and with something completely different.

Up next: Burn it all to the ground.

“Primitive”:

“Overpowered”:

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Imperial Teen, “The Hair, The TV, The Baby & The Band”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #86 – released August 21, 2007)

Track listing: Everything / Do It Better / Shim Sham / Baby and The Band / One Two / Room With A View / It’s Now / Fallen Idol / Sweet Potato / Everyone Wants To Know / 21st Century / What You Do

Although better known than Eric Matthews or Tompaulin, Imperial Teen are easily one of the more obscure artists appearing in this project. Most famous for sharing a member of platinum-selling metal/rap weirdos Faith No More (keyboardist Roddy Bottum, who primarily plays guitar and sings here) and finding one of their songs, “The First” unexpectedly pop up in a Pizzeria Uno commercial (of all places) a few years back, this boy-girl-boy-girl quartet made five albums between 1996 and 2012; all of ‘em were admired by critics and all sold diddly squat (the first two even coming out on a Major Label.)

Initially a scrappy post-grunge, pop-punk outfit (with greater emphasis on the pop part), the band was arguably more recognized at first for its openly gay members (Bottum had memorably come out on MTV a few years earlier) than its music, even if “You’re One”, a song about Kurt Cobain from their debut Seasick briefly snuck on to some alt-rock radio playlists. By their third album On (2002), they’d evolve into a tight power-pop combo, flush with miniature masterpieces like “Ivanka” where their melodic prowess, rhythmic attack and interlocking vocals all coalesce into a whole that thrillingly builds like the band is careening forever closer to the edge of a cliff without falling off.

I got to know Imperial Teen through their fourth album, The Hair, The TV, The Baby & The Band; its title cheekily refers to what each member had been up to in the five years since On. Respectively, bassist Jone Stebbins found side work as a hair stylist, Bottum scored the short-lived ABC series Help Me Help You, drummer Lynn Truell was currently an expectant mother and guitarist/vocalist Will Schwartz had his own musical side project, hey willpower. One suspects Schwartz might’ve also been the driving force for getting Imperial Teen back together, as he sings lead on all but three of the record’s dozen tracks.

It’s likely I would’ve become a fan had I heard any of the band’s previous albums first, but I consider myself lucky that I came on board here—The Hair… could be one of the all-time hookiest albums I’ve heard, packed front to back with nothing but clever, concise and supremely catchy tunes. Call them a queer, co-ed, semi-acoustic Ramones, but even that description would obscure the complexities in their countermelodies and overlapping vocal harmonies.

Opener “Everything”, a thrillingly sped-up take on “Be My Baby” grandeur carefully crafts a mini-wall-of-sound without a hint of Spector-ish pretentiousness—it gleefully employs cymbal crashes, a one-two-three-four! count-off, a heart-stopping chord change at its middle-eight and rhymes such as “democracy” with “hypocrisy”. It sets the stage for a slew of likeminded ravers: “Shim Sham” (with lead vocals from Truell), which emulates the trash-culture party aesthetic of early B-52’s (albeit with very different vocalists); “One Two”, a call-and-response shout-out that chugs along rapidly without seeming to ever break a sweat; “21st Century”, teeming with ecstatic cries of “Count! Down!” and angular guitar stabs that wouldn’t be out of place on a Sleater-Kinney song.

My favorite of these scrappier garage-rock numbers is “Sweet Potato”, where a lovably stoopid, nay, remedial guitar riff and matching beat backs up one killer lyric after another: “They put her in the bottom three for singing ‘Tea For Two’,”; “Got a backstage pass but she doesn’t want to meet the band,”; “The carpool lane is open but she’s takin’ the bus.” Each one is followed by the song’s title, but the chorus is arguably even better: “Anyone, anywhere, anyway, LET’S GO!,” repeated over and over, not holding any hidden meaning but immensely enjoyable just for the sheer fun of it.

Fortunately, Imperial Teen are as effective when they cut their pop-punk with more varied, dynamic sounds and tones. “Do It Better” retains the brisk pace and fervent passion of their rowdier stuff, but deepens and agreeably softens things a little with its omnipresent flute-like keyboard and excessively melodic guitar riffs. “It’s Now” utilizes that tried-and-true soft-verse-then-loud-chorus construction but does so expertly whether you prefer their primal exclamations of “It’s NOWWW! It’s NOWWW!” or that moment where they rhyme “ceiling” with “Darjeeling”. “Everyone Wants To Know” goes the mid-tempo-with-power-chords route but keeps it lively with no lack of melody or lovely harmonies. “Fallen Idol” even takes a stab at loungey piano pop reminiscent of early ’70s Todd Rundgren with its major-7th chords, oompah rhythm and da-da-da’s (while still managing to sneak in a cheeky “Unabomber/Dahmer” rhyme.)

As proficient they are at creating great characters like “Sweet Potato”, Imperial Teen’s best songs often concern nothing so lofty as themselves, and, in particular, the plight of indie-rockers approaching middle age. The album’s title track (shortened to just “Baby and the Band”) could double as a band theme song as if they were to star in their own sitcom or Saturday morning cartoon; indeed, Bottum’s lead vocal, far more gentle than Schwartz’s, could almost be peak-period Donovan. A stop-and-start rhythm adds a little spice to the track’s affably bubblegum melody, while its lyrics are full of irresistible wordplay (“The wheels will turn / The top will spin / for me / for she / for her/ for him,”) and disarmingly clever rhymes with the song’s title, such as “Eight hands pound on the Concert Grand,” or “Fresh fruit’s best when it’s ripe and canned.”

“Room With A View” is just as catchy but cuts a little deeper. “We are working so hard / and we’re betting the farm / Charge it all to the card / Seventh time is the charm,” Schwartz trills in the first verse and, whether strictly autobiographical or not, you can’t help but want to believe he’s singing about his band. In the second verse, he almost wistfully adds, “Do our best to pretend / we’ll be twenty for life,” and the phrase hits like a dagger. Meanwhile, the Vince Guaraldi-esque piano lead is as charming as the one Belle and Sebastian built “Seeing Other People” around, while the rest of the band’s backing vocals (especially in the extended breakdown before the final chorus) serve as a reminder that they’re all in this together with Schwartz. “Room With A View” sounds like a lament that’s also a manifesto of sorts, acknowledging the passage of time (“We no longer smash guitars”) but also accepting it gracefully, particularly in the chorus: “And now / all we got left is a room / I didn’t mean to assume / we got the room with a view.”

As is their wont, Imperial Teen returned another five years later with their fifth album, Feel The Sound (whose title comes from The Hair’s… delicate Bottum-sung, closing ballad “What You Do”.) With production much fuller and airier than any of their previous work, it was thoughtful and mature, but not nearly as much fun (apart from “Out From Inside”, which could’ve been lifted off an old Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? episode.) At this writing, their website hasn’t been updated in four years, so they haven’t officially broken up. Still, given their track record, it would not surprise me to hear about a new Imperial Teen record tomorrow. Even if they have long since ceased smashing their guitars, I’d still be curious to hear how middle age is treating them.

Up next: Still a Weirdo.

“Room With A View”:

“Baby and The Band”:

Film Journal: July 2018

Films seen in July, including two of the best new(ish) ones right at month’s end. As usual, starred titles are re-watches.

The Little Hours
Can’t go wrong with Aubrey Plaza as a profane nun, or even Dave Franco as a fake deaf-mute sex slave. I wish it was all a little more than it was; perhaps the cast should reunite for another Pasolini remake? (Not SALO.) B-

Damsel
The Zellner Brothers’ previous film, KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER, may end up on my top ten list for the decade, so this is a slight comedown. The less one knows going into it, the better, so I’ll just complement Mia Wasikowska for continuing to make smart choices and Robert Pattinson for being open to exceedingly weird ones. Not so much an anti-Western as an anti-Rom-Com. Stunning to look at, leaves one with much to ponder, but it also induces whiplash and it could’ve been a bit shorter. B

Leave No Trace
Although far less prolific, I’d like to think of Debra Granik as the American Mike Leigh for her depiction (consideration, even) of the rural working-class without condescending to them. Not as seminal or all-out engrossing as WINTER’S BONE, but teenager Thomasin McKenzie’s every bit the find Jennifer Lawrence was, even if her contained performance is entirely different. Ben Foster exhibits the right amount of restraint in what could’ve been a showy role and Dale Dickey as always is a welcoming presence in a smaller, not to mention kinder part than her WINTER’S BONE matriarch. I’m somewhat torn on the gutsy ending—at the very least, Granik doesn’t opt for an easy way out of the conundrum she’s set in motion. A-

Apocalypse Now*
Not a fan of war films, but I could return to this one again and again more than any other of its genre (except maybe ARMY OF SHADOWS.) A

Zama
Apart from her debut feature LA CIENAGA, all of Lucrecia Martel’s films have left me cold and damned if I can pinpoint why. As a big fan of stuff like Tarkovsky’s STALKER, it’s not like I abhor slow cinema; I just feel a disconnect, something in her narrative approach that prevents me from giving myself over to whatever she’s putting across. This one, centered on the titular Spanish magistrate in an 18th century South American colony is beautifully shot and laced with mordant humor but it seems to just circle and circle without going anywhere—that is, at first, for something genuinely shocking happens in the last fifteen minutes. In retrospect, the film had been building to that moment, if obliquely, and I’d bet a second viewing would make this clearer. I can’t say ZAMA suddenly clicked with me at that point, but I admit it jolted me into attentiveness and raised my grade a notch. B-

Three Identical Strangers
A stranger-than-fiction doc even *more* fun than but nearly as disturbing as CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS? No wonder it’s the feel-good-then-feel-bad indie hit of the summer. The first half hour or so is immensely entertaining; the increasingly wacko plot twists that follow sustain that excitement, heightening the impact as things turn tragic. However, a lack of resolution keeps the film from transcending its novel hook—it attempts a definitive argument at the age-old question of nature vs. nurture, but its conclusions aren’t entirely convincing or nuanced enough. B

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot
Wildly uneven like a lot of Van Sant: at worst, the stuff about John Callahan’s pre-accident drinking and post-accident love life threatens to slide into a mawkishness of near GOOD WILL HUNTING proportions. On the other hand, nearly all of the AA scenes are golden—I haven’t seen another contemporary film go so deeply or thoughtfully into the minutiae and philosophy of 12-step recovery. So many terrific performances here: Phoenix, of course, but also Jonah Hill wonderfully exhibiting restraint while portraying a flamboyant character and decent smaller turns from Kim Gordon, Jack Black (esp. in his scene late in the film) and musician/model Beth Ditto, whom as an actress turns out to be a delight. B

Winter Kills
First heard about this in Charles Taylor’s indispensable book on ‘70s genre cinema, OPENING WEDNESDAY AT A THEATER OR DRIVE-IN NEAR YOU. Not convinced it’s an underseen masterpiece like BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (the book’s centerpiece), but definitely worth a look, if not just for a physically-in-his-prime Jeff Bridges and wacko cameos from the likes of Dorothy Malone, Toshiro Mifune and (briefly) Liz Taylor. An almost chillingly prescient satire, you’d only need to update the dates and change the answering machine motif to a smartphone to remake it verbatim for the present day. B+

Do The Right Thing*
First viewing in 20+ years. I’ll just note that when Spike Lee is bad, he’s atrocious, but when he’s good, like in PASSING STRANGE, MALCOLM X, 25TH HOUR and especially this film, he can be fucking tremendous. Resonates more today than any other film from 1989, I’d bet. A

Yellow Submarine*
The trippiest movie you could ever take the whole family to. Also probably the Beatles’ second best (certainly better than HELP!)—telling that it flags whenever they’re absent from the screen. The music in this latest digital restoration sounds absolutely sublime. B+

Blindspotting
As regional/provincial cinema goes, this is valuable enough—it depicts Oakland lovingly without sentimentalizing it. Diggs and Casal are also good together (and apart) and should each be in more films, please. However, the direction’s ham-fisted, the hipster house party is too satirically glib to mesh with the film’s stabs at “realism” and the climax hinges upon a coincidence I just didn’t buy. Grading generously, though, because it has something vital to say, even if it somewhat fumbles the execution. B-

The Women (1939)*
“Get me a bromide – and put some gin in it.” B+

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Guessing this wasn’t a box-office failure because of the kinky threesome/bondage stuff as inspiration for the most popular female superhero of all time; rather, it didn’t connect because it’s possibly the first comic book-related film with brains, taking a deep dive into the psychological implications behind the character, which, if you’re open to it, is arguably more stimulating than the sex stuff. Also, I’d forgotten how good Rebecca Hall can be: she’s so abrasive, tart yet likable—sign her up to play a Mike Leigh heroine. A-

Sorry To Bother You
Unapologetically silly and more than a bit slapdash, but also weirdly convincing in what it wants to do and howlingly funny while doing it. I haven’t seen anything that felt so alive since THE DEATH OF STALIN; time will tell whether Riley’s bold, often-ridiculous, wildly entertaining debut ends up feeling strictly of-the-moment or like a premonition. A-

2006: No Party To Go To

In 2006, now fully into my thirties, my life began to solidify—had a steady job, a good living situation, I even met the person I’d eventually marry. Music too remained a constant, even if none of the albums on my original year-end top ten endured to point of warranting their own entries in this project (the one that did, I didn’t hear until its American edition came out the following year.)

Starting this year, I began making best-of mix CDs to send out to friends, a ritual I kept up through 2010 (and briefly revived in 2015.) Most of the first seventeen tracks here appeared on that first mix, with a few substitutions—“Dress Up In You” remains one of my ten favorite Belle and Sebastian songs, while my original choice of “The Blues Are Still Blue” would now barely crack the top fifty. Also, Swedish pop star Marit Bergman’s ebullient “No Party”, the original lead-off track (and rightfully so) is currently not on Spotify, so I’ve embedded its video above.

The latter half of this playlist is full of songs that have endured, from massive hits (Gnarls Barkley, Scissor Sisters) to barking-mad obscurities (please listen to the Herbert song all the way to the end) and everything in between. I would apologize for that Rodrigo y Gabriela-Sparks-Gainsbourg sequence for inducing whiplash if not, even by 2006, iPod shuffling hadn’t already conditioned us into listening to music that way.

Also, if someone were to locate a copy of this playlist decades from now without knowing the title, I’d like to think due to the timeless nature of such tracks as “Be Here Now”, “Crowd Surf Off A Cliff” and “I Feel Like Going Home”, they might not immediately deduce what exact year all these tunes came from.

Click here to listen to my 2006 playlist on Spotify

1. Neko Case, “Hold On, Hold On”
2. The BellRays, “Third Time’s The Charm”
3. Regina Spektor, “Better”
4. Hot Chip, “Boy From School”
5. TV On The Radio, “A Method”
6. Belle and Sebastian, “Dress Up In You”
7. The Hidden Cameras, “Awoo”
8. Jenny Lewis & The Watson Twins, “Rise Up With Fists!”
9. James Hunter, “People Gonna Talk”
10. Paul Brill, “Don’t Tell Them”
11. Camera Obscura, “If Looks Could Kill”
12. Emm Gryner, “Almighty Love”
13. Sufjan Stevens, “Dear Mr. Supercomputer”
14. Nellie McKay & Cyndi Lauper, “Beecharmer”
15. Calexico, “Cruel”
16. Junior Boys, “In The Morning”
17. Pet Shop Boys, “Integral”
18. Gnarls Barkley, “Crazy”
19. Art Brut, “Formed A Band”
20. Ben Kweller, “Sundress”
21. The Decemberists, “O Valencia!”
22. The Radio Dept., “The Worst Taste In Music”
23. The Divine Comedy, “Diva Lady”
24. Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton, “Crowd Surf Off A Cliff”
25. Ray LaMontagne, “Be Here Now”
26. Herbert, “The Movers and The Shakers”
27. Pernice Brothers, “Automaton”
28. Rodrigo y Gabriela, “Tamacun”
29. Sparks, “Dick Around”
30. Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Everything I Cannot See”
31. Scissor Sisters, “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’”
32. Chris Isaak, “King Without A Castle”
33. Yo La Tengo, “I Feel Like Going Home”

Charlotte Gainsbourg, “5:55”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #85 – released August 28, 2006)

Track listing: 5:55 / Af607105 / The Operation / Tel Que Tu Es / The Songs That We Sing / Beauty Mark / Little Monsters / Jamais / Night-Time Intermission / Everything I Cannot See / Morning Song / Set Yourself On Fire* / Somewhere Between Waking and Sleeping*

*Bonus tracks included on later editions.

Technically, 5:55 is not Charlotte Gainsbourg’s first appearance on 100 Albums—she’s on the cover of her father Serge’s 1971 LP Histoire de Melody Nelson, albeit in the form of her mother Jane Birkin’s four-month-old baby bump (strategically concealed by a stuffed animal.) Also, 5:55 is not even her debut album, for that was actually 1986’s Charlotte For Ever, featuring the single “Lemon Incest”, which Serge wrote and produced as a duet with her two years before when she was thirteen. We also partially have dad to thank for her subsequent acting career, as he created a feature-length vehicle for the two of them, also called Charlotte For Ever. After his 1991 death, she’d gradually establish herself as a world-class actress with major roles in films like Felix and Lola, My Wife Is An Actress, 21 Grams and The Science of Sleep.

As the offspring of a French singer/songwriter and a British singer/actress, it was inevitable that Gainsbourg would return to making music as an adult; fortunately, the results far exceeded your average actress-wants-to-sing-too kind of effort, even if the methodology wasn’t all that far off from when she worked with her father. Deftly noting that she didn’t possess substantial credentials as a songwriter or a musician, she found superlative artists in each field to assist her. Thus, 5:55 plays like a three-way collaboration between vocalist Gainsbourg, lyricist Jarvis Cocker of the then recently-defunct Britpop group Pulp and French electronica-lounge male duo Air, who wrote and arranged the music.

Pulp fans, no matter how casual, can immediately pinpoint Cocker’s transgressive point of view in 5:55’s lyrics (previously most eloquently expressed in that band’s classic anthem “Common People”.) Likewise, Air fans will easily recognize the gentle, ethereal, piano-and-strings heavy, near-easy-listening vibe as not at all dissimilar from their own albums Moon Safari and Talkie Walkie. Thus, the wild card here is Gainsbourg, whom, two decades removed from Charlotte For Ever, has no great precedent as a singer. Some may argue she’s (still) not a singer, with her thin, reedy voice and tendency to more often breathily speak the lyrics, restricting the actual singing to occasional songs and passages. Still, you can’t deny she has presence—much like her father, who was hardly technically a “great” vocalist, her delivery just oozes personality without seeming artificial or insincere (credit her acting skills.) It’s also fitting that, as she sings/speaks Cocker’s English lyrics, her British accent renders her his distaff equivalent, even if she displays enough flair and finesse to render her more than just a female Cocker clone.

5:55’s title track opener immediately sets a tone the rest of the album sustains. Piano arpeggios lay the foundation for Gainsbourg’s drowsy, near-whispered vocals. “Too late to end it now / too early to start again,” she winsomely sings, followed by a plaintive chorus that’s entirely the song’s title. One minute in, sumptuous strings first appear, occasionally swelling in the instrumental sections (along with a classy acoustic guitar solo) and at the end, as she sighs, “I sacrifice myself again, and again, and again…” repeating those last two words ad infinitum.

“Af607105” retains the same tempo, only to a trip-hop groove laden with electro sound effects. Clipped, spoken verses alternate with a serene, reassuringly sung chorus—the former a stream-of-consciousness collection of words and phrases (“Cigarettes / frequent flyer / stow away / dislocation”), the latter a confirmation as to what the cryptic title refers to (“We wish you all a very happy pleasant flight / this is a journey to the center of the night.”) It’s simultaneously a story-song, a confessional (“My heart is breaking somewhere over Saskatchewan”) and a mood piece.

The rest of 5:55 similarly vacillates between gorgeous, downbeat ballads and more lucid, hookier songs that nonetheless carry a hint of menace. “The Operation”, a scathing look at plastic surgery (“Our love goes under the knife,” she sings in the catchy, caustic chorus) set to a multi-layered mechanical rhythm is followed by “Tel Que Tu Es” (roughly, “Just As You Are”), a floating, circular waltz that exudes sparkly opulence thanks to its triangles and chimes. Interestingly, it’s the sole song here with mostly French lyrics (written by Air instead of Cocker); her decision to sing in English throughout the album might’ve been a way to distance herself from her (in)famous father, who predominantly sang in French.

Similarly, ‘The Songs That We Sing”, which could be an instant standard with its stirring opening fanfare and clarion chorus of, “And these songs that you sing / do they mean anything / To the people you’re singing them to / People like you,” precedes “Beauty Mark”, a deliberately slow, delicate tone poem. Little details, such a Fender Rhodes electric piano or a lone, spaced-out tambourine bubble to the surface as Gainsbourg eerily croons in her higher register, “I’ll keep it for yoo-ouuu,” while vaguely sinister strings threaten to take it all away from her.

On 5:55’s second half, you can sense Gainsbourg’s increasing confidence and a more pronounced tendency to experiment. The glass-eyed “Little Monsters” is the Air-iest song on the record; likewise, the self-deprecating lyrics are among its most Cocker-ish (“Dirty creatures, tiny animals that crawl towards the light / Don’t you ever change”), but the singer more than holds her own—you believe the sentiment is hers and not second-hand, particularly when she concludes, “Deep inside I’m still the same / Just one more little monster / Making out that she knows the rules / A sincere impostor.”

On “Jamais” (i.e.—“Never”), the music almost unapologetically resembles her father’s, opening with a lazy shuffle-beat, a high melodic bassline and luxuriant piano chords that could’ve all been swiped from Histoire de Melody Nelson. But, there’s also so much more going on here: her vocals modulating up a notch with each line in the verses, the almost-mocking harp glissandos on the middle-eight, the monochromatic buzzing synth that just takes over for where the final verse should be, and of course, a plethora of prickly Cocker bon mots (most memorably, “I stick to the script and I go with the plan / And frankly my dear I never gave a damn / Jamais.”)

Both “Night-Time Intermission”, with its brisk, funky drummer groove and “Morning Song”, a spare, shimmering, inconclusive lament add texture but primarily serve as bookends to 5:55’s true centerpiece. “Everything I Cannot See” begins with a carefully strummed acoustic guitar, soon joined by almost rococo piano trills up and down the keyboard. While no Francoise Hardy or even a Joni Mitchell, Gainsbourg’s voice sounds better than ever here, especially at the chorus. Over repeated, cascading piano triplets, she lets loose: “You’re the rain / you’re the stars / you’re so near / you’re so far / you’re my friend / you’re my foe / you’re the miles left to go,” she gutturally but tunefully (not to mention loudly) spits out before concluding, “You are everything I ever wanted / and you are my lover.” It’s such a great chorus it appears four times in just under six minutes, and a fifth or sixth iteration would not be unreasonable.

Like Black Box Recorder’s The Facts of Life (which aurally, at least, it’s not all that far off from), 5:55 did not come out in America until six months after its initial overseas release, but with two bonus tracks, one of which is essential. “Set Yourself On Fire” plays like a slightly juiced-up sequel to “The Operation”, its motorized beat further enhanced by a treated piano lick; it also allows Gainsbourg to rhyme “ashes” with “asses” and spool off such phrases as “he burned his britches, she burned her bra,” in an irresistible Morse code cadence. The other bonus track, “Somewhere Between Waking and Sleeping” is at the very least a more satisfying closer than “Morning Song”, evoking loneliness and ennui without heavy despair, ending most of its verses with the couplet, “Human kindness is overflowing / and I think it’s going to rain today.”

Gainsbourg spent much of the next decade dedicated to her acting career, becoming Lars von Trier’s unlikely muse by starring in his films Antichrist, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac. Her follow-up to 5:55, 2010’s Beck-produced IRM, sported a title inspired by her head injury from a few years prior (it’s the French equivalent of a MRI) and offered a slew of divergent musical paths, all of them interesting enough but none as indelible as its predecessor’s. She would not return with new music until 2017’s Rest, where, for the first time, she wrote all the lyrics (with the exception of “Songbird in a Cage”, composed by one Sir Paul McCartney!) Influenced by her father’s passing and also the more recent death of her sister Kate, it was arguably where she truly came into her own, now quite regularly switching from French to English and back again, turning out confections like the sinister disco epic “Deadly Valentine” that surely would’ve made Serge proud. Time will tell whether Rest replaces 5:55 as her best album (at this writing, it’s still too new); although the latter’s not a debut, it remains an excellent introduction.

Up next: “They put her in the bottom three for singing ‘Tea For Two’.”

“Everything I Cannot See”:

“Jamais”:

2005: With What The Majestic Cannot Find

Irresistible to begin one of these best-of-year mixes with a song declaring, “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.” Those words resonated deeply for me in 2005—my love life was in seemingly perpetual flux and I also had a doozy of a move to a new apartment that September. I was required to haul out much furniture left behind by ex-roommates and schlep the rest two blocks away over to the new place (which I’d end up staying in for a scant six months.)

Anyway, just as I went to more movies in 2005 than any previous year (including my first trip to the Toronto International Film Festival), I probably listened to more new music as well. My first draft of this mix was up near the 50-song mark, so I whittled it down to 33 (the same amount as 2004.) Given that this year generated three of my all-time favorite albums, the other tracks and one-offs I’ve kept are decidedly choice. There are unusual cameos (Cindy and Kate from The B-52s on “Take My Time”! An opera singer on the Calexico/Iron and Wine collaboration!), triumphant returns-to-form (Depeche Mode, Erasure, Aimee Mann and New Order), and defining singles such as Sufjan Stevens’ now-iconic ode to the Windy City, Fiona Apple’s Disney-meets-David Lynch title track from her troubled third album and The New Pornographers’ breathless, towering mini-epic—the centerpiece of an LP I nearly gave its own entry to.

If you asked me what some of the big hits of 2005 were, I’d answer “Hollaback Girl”, “Gold Digger”, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and… that’s all I can name. But this mix is packed with songs that received many plays at the time on my just-purchased first iPod: Andrew Bird’s catchy, soaring, indecipherable wordplay; Metric’s Blondie-worthy disco-rock; My Morning Jacket’s incredible fusion of Lynyrd Skynyrd and XTC; Pernice Brothers’ blissful instrumental; Amy Rigby’s disarming meet-the-new-wife tale; glorious, meticulous power-pop from Stars, The Magic Numbers and Oranger; Doves’ alternately spiky and swaying Motown pastiche; and the now mostly-forgotten Shivaree’s dreamy, undulating ballad, its unresolved melancholy and regret just hanging there, affecting and unshakable.

Click here to listen to my 2005 playlist on Spotify

  1. The Mountain Goats, “This Year”
  2. The Go-Betweens, “Finding You”
  3. Calexico/Iron and Wine “He Lays In The Reins”
  4. Junior Senior, “Take My Time”
  5. The Decemberists, “The Sporting Life”
  6. Depeche Mode, “Precious”
  7. The New Pornographers, “The Bleeding Heart Show”
  8. Amy Rigby, “The Trouble With Jeanie”
  9. Bettye LaVette, “Joy”
  10. Doves, “Almost Forgot Myself”
  11. Metric, “Poster Of A Girl”
  12. Sufjan Stevens, “Chicago”
  13. Keren Ann, “Greatest You Can Find”
  14. Aimee Mann, “Video”
  15. Kate Bush, “A Coral Room”
  16. Roisin Murphy, “Through Time”
  17. Fiona Apple, “Extraordinary Machine”
  18. Erasure, “Here I Go Impossible Again”
  19. Goldfrapp, “Ride A White Horse”
  20. My Morning Jacket, “Off The Record”
  21. Pernice Brothers, “Discover A Lovelier You”
  22. Shivaree, “Mexican Boyfriend”
  23. Antony and the Johnsons, “Fistful of Love”
  24. Martha Wainwright, “When The Day Is Short”
  25. The Magic Numbers, “Love Me Like You”
  26. Andrew Bird, “Fake Palindromes”
  27. Stars, “Aging Beauty”
  28. New Order, “Waiting For The Siren’s Call”
  29. Spoon, “The Beast and Dragon, Adored”
  30. Oranger, “Sukiyaki”
  31. Ivy, “Ocean City Girl”
  32. Saint Etienne, “Stars Above Us”
  33. Ben Folds, “Landed”

Kate Bush, “Aerial”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #84 – released November 8, 2005)

Track listing: A SEA OF HONEY: King of the Mountain / Pi / Bertie / Mrs. Bartolozzi / How To Be Invisible / Joanni / A Coral Room // A SKY OF HONEY: Prelude / Prologue / An Architect’s Dream / The Painter’s Link / Sunset / Aerial Tal / Somewhere In Between / Nocturn / Aerial

A dozen years is an eternity in pop music—you could stuff the Beatles’ entire recorded output (save those two Anthology zombie tracks) within that frame and still have a few years left over. Look at Kate Bush’s trajectory over her first five albums, from The Kick Inside to Hounds of Love in just seven years. Even considering the particular twelve-year period between her seventh and eighth albums, you can detect sea changes: for instance, compare Radiohead’s 1993 debut Pablo Honey to their most recent album as of 2005 (Hail To The Thief) and everything in between (including OK Computer and Kid A.)

After Hounds of Love, Bush returned four years later with The Sensual World (1989): a departure, it largely eschewed the amped-up phantasmagoria of her back catalogue for more mature, subdued tones, such as the world music-accented title track or the orchestrated piano balladry of “This Woman’s Work”. Her next album, The Red Shoes, arrived another four years after that, mixing state-of-the-art, neo-new wave pop (“The Rubberband Girl”) with typically more thematically adventurous conceits (“Song of Solomon”, the Powell/Pressburger film-quoting title track) and an excess of high profile cameos, from Eric Clapton to Prince. Both albums were good enough at the time, but neither felt anywhere near as innovative or game-changing as The Dreaming or Hounds of Love.

And then, not a peep from Bush for over a decade. She partially attributed this extended hiatus to her mother’s passing prior to The Red Shoes and also to the birth of her son Albert in 1998—right after those of us were hoping for a new album after another four-year interval. A February 2003 MOJO cover story celebrating her career and legacy ensured readers that Bush was working on new material (as when to expect it, she responded via her business manager, “How long is a piece of string?”) After Aerial was finally announced over two-and-a-half years later, I understandably anticipated it like few other albums before. Actually, I honestly couldn’t imagine what new Kate Bush music in 2005 could possibly be: a rehash of or a logical follow-up to The Red Shoes? A record incorporating new, potentially up-to-the-minute sounds and trends? Or perhaps something entirely different from all that came before?

Further goading expectations, Aerial turned out to be a double album, with each disc sporting a subtitle. The first, “A Sea of Honey” contained seven songs, including the lead-off single “King Of The Mountain”, while the second, “A Sky of Honey”, was a nine-track, album-length suite. The sequencing resembled no less than a supersized equivalent to Hounds of Love, whose first five unrelated tracks were followed by “The Ninth Wave”, a seven-track suite about drowning. One had to question if Bush, after such a long absence was actually making an attempt to top her most acclaimed and best-selling album.

The internet was such that by November 2005, I was easily able to listen to “King of the Mountain” online before Aerial’s release. I remember initially feeling tentative towards it. Rather than an obvious-sounding first single like “The Rubberband Girl”, it was mysterious and open-ended, slowly taking its time to get where it wanted to go. It’s built on a three-note synth hook, just like Hounds of Love opener (and her lone US top 40 hit) “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”, but gentler, airier. The lyrics seem to reference Elvis, the King of Rock and Roll himself; while her deepened-with-time vocals on the verses halfway pay tribute to him, the music sounds not a whit like his, even more so after a reggae guitar hook surfaces from the second verse on. Wind is a constant presence here, both lyrically (“The wind is whistling through the house”) and sonically, with simulated wind noise eventually accompanied by Bush herself emulating it: she emits, “Whoa, Whooahh, WHOAAAAHHHHHH,” at 3:45, reassuring longtime fans just when they might’ve begun to fear she was no longer the glorious kook they knew and love.

“King Of The Mountain” takes a few spins to fully resonate, but it’s a good choice for first track and single, for it establishes a tone the remaining songs on “A Sea of Honey” mostly sustain. Apart from “Joanni” with its trip-hop indebted electrobeats and Bush’s inimitable gravelly humming at the end (still a weirdo, god bless her), these are subdued, curious little song-puzzles. This might disappoint those looking for another “Sat In Your Lap” from her, but she’s already been there, done that—at 24, no less. Now nearly twice that age, it’s only fitting that her obsessions have shifted. Naturally, motherhood is a glaring one, reflected in a gushing but sincere tribute to her son, the chamber-pop fugue “Bertie”, but an entire disc of musings upon her decade-plus domestic sabbatical this is not.

Throughout Aerial’s first half, Bush maintains her reputation as an eccentric often via subject matter alone. “Pi” is a six-minute-long, casually unfolding paean to “a man with an obsessive nature and deep fascination for numbers”—in particular, “a complete infatuation with the calculation” of the mathematical constant that is the song’s title. Over a primarily acoustic arrangement accentuated by an oscillating synth, she delicately trills the calculation’s digits, “Threee… point one four one / five nine two…” one by one up to the thirtieth digit, and that’s the chorus. “Oh, he love, he love, he love, he does love his numbers,” she adds, rendering this the most playful tune about such a subject since Tom Lehrer’s ode to “New Math” four decades before—and possibly the most lustful one, ever.

“How To Be Invisible” scans like a wiser, weathered update on Bush’s old fixations with magic and witchcraft: she lays out peculiar instructions (“You take a pinch of keyhole / and fold yourself up / You cut along the dotted lines / and think inside out”) on how to literally (or is that figuratively?) disappear. That she further combines a slightly sinister, minor-key melody to a lush bed of warm, electric guitars, Fender Rhodes piano and occasional electronic curlicues makes it feel less foreign than oddly familiar. “Joanni” is even more recognizable, almost a direct callback to such earlier real-life tributes as “Houdini”. In this case, it’s about Joan of Arc. “Who’s that girl?,” Bush repeatedly asks, sidestepping most of her subject’s religious and political implications to celebrate her mere presence, noting “how beautiful she looks in her armor.” Meanwhile, the music continually swells and sighs, a perfect complement to Bush’s ever-present romanticism.

“A Sea of Honey’s” two most remarkable tracks have skeletal, piano-and-voice arrangements like little else she’s done since The Kick Inside, only with the added heft of her aged, deepened tone. The first, “Mrs. Bartolozzi”, has an intro providing dramatic contrast to the closing, orchestral notes of preceding song “Bertie” (it also faintly resembles the opening of Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds”, of all things.) Then, she sings about doing the laundry for nearly six minutes. The title suggests it’s a character sketch rather than a peek into Bush’s own retreat into domestic life (I assume she’s flush enough to hire a maid—perhaps this is about her?); as always, she appears so invested in her creation you can still picture Bush sorting whites from darks, measuring the detergent and so on. Over a vaguely ominous but captivating melody, she sings the words “washing machine” over and over, hitting a chilling high note on the last “ma-chiiiiine” before equating something so mundane as washing clothes with an act of transcendence like wading in the ocean. “Oh and the waves are coming in / Oh and the waves are going out,” she mesmerizingly repeats—it’s Pure, Unfiltered Kate, as is a latter interlude where she whimsically sings in a wraith-like voice, “Slooshy, sloshy, slooshy, sloshy / get that dirtee shirtee cleeaan.”

The second piano-and-voice number, “A Coral Room”, starts off like a tone poem, all jazzy diminished chords separated by long pauses as she constructs an extended metaphor of “a city, draped in net… covered in webs, moving and glistening and rocking,” those last three modifiers stretched out to umpteen syllables, their liquidity suffused with delicate sorrow. “The spider of time is climbing / over the ruins,” she notes, before a chorus that mentions crashing planes and drowned pilots. The latter ends with a question: “Put your hand over the side of the boat / What do you feel?”

Not until the second verse does she reveals what the song is really about: “My mother / and her little brown jug,” she sings, “It held her milk / and now it holds our memories.” Although Bush included her mother among all the deceased friends and relatives that populated “Moments of Pleasure”, The Red Shoes’ vivid, elegiac tribute to them, “A Coral Room” penetrates deeper and more directly into Bush’s profound loss and grief. “I can hear her singing, ‘Little brown jug don’t I love thee,” Bush recalls, with male vocalist Michael Wood somberly repeating those words.

She goes on, “I can her hear laughing / she is standing in the kitchen / as we come in the back door,” before softly concluding, “See it fall.” After those three words come a series of descending piano notes that are just devastating in their simplicity. “See it fall,” she mournfully repeats over those sinking notes, before singing of “a spider climbing out of a broken jug” and “a room filled with coral”, eventually ending the song and “A Sea of Honey” on that same question: “Put your hand over the side of the boat / What do you feel?” It’s a composition bathed in poetic language and more than a trace of mystery, but Bush ensures that you can’t possibly miss its emotional intent.

***

On some later editions of Aerial (including the one currently on Spotify), the second disc is formatted as a single, nearly 42-minute-long track called “An Endless Sky of Honey”. It makes sense to view it this way, as it’s arguably more seamless and complete a song suite than even “The Ninth Wave”. Still, I’ll refer to it as just “A Sky of Honey”, for that was its original title and it’s obviously easier to write about it as a series of tracks, no matter how connected they may be.

Chronologically spanning the course of a mid-summer’s day and night at an Italian artist’s colony, “A Sky of Honey” increasingly looks more and more like Bush’s masterwork. A subtle, ambitious, carefully unfolding extended piece, it fulfills any hope I had for Aerial as a triumphant return while also recalibrating my perception of what she could accomplish. I wouldn’t recommend it as a starting point for those new to her—Hounds of Love or even The Whole Story provide a fuller, more direct sense of her as pop music provocateur. What’s most intriguing and somewhat challenging about “A Sky of Honey” is how expertly it builds momentum, little by little, slowly accumulating details until it reaches a sublime, almost euphoric release.

“Prelude” features her son Bertie saying, “Mummy, Daddy, the day is full of birds; sounds like they’re saying words,” over an atmospheric wash of synth, piano chords and avian noises, some of them sampled, others curiously sounding like Bush herself. From there, “Prologue” leisurely unfurls like a late-period Talk Talk song. “It’s gonna be so good, now,” Bush sings, unmistakably in a cadence you could not attribute to anyone else, her voice rich and sweet like honey. About three minutes in, Michael Kamen-arranged strings appear like a rising sun. There’s a verse in Italian, followed by a repeated chorus of, “What a lovely afternoon!” It’s as if we’ve oh-so-slowly awakened, taking nearly six minutes to arrive at this destination.

“An Architect’s Dream” proceeds at the same unhurried tempo but feels more voluminous with its bongo-like percussion and bright electric guitar filigrees. It’s specifically an ode to a painter (voiced by longtime Bush collaborator Rolf Harris) used as a means to comment on the creative process. When an “accident” occurs in crafting a painting, it’s no detriment: “It’s the best mistake / he could make / And it’s my favourite piece / it’s just great,” she sings, lending a palpable emphasis to those last three words that just melts my heart every time I hear them. She describes the act of creation as, “Curving and sweeping, / rising and reaching,” languorously stretching out the syllables of each word; as if in tandem, the song itself also emulates these motions while maintaining a steady pace.

“The Painter’s Link”, a brief orchestral fanfare, follows with Harris lamenting, “It’s raining / what has become of my painting,” a reminder that art is fleeting and often temporary. The music then swells and a multi-tracked chorus of Bushes respond, “So all the colors run! / See what they have become / A wonderful sunset.” The next song begins immediately after that last word, which provides its title. “A sea of honey, / a sky of honey,” she coos, stretching out “sea” and “sky” to well past fifteen syllables, over a melody that briefly appeared in the opening notes of “A Coral Room”. This is not the first callback to the first disc, as “Prologue” also featured vocal cadences and an omnipresent tremolo synth similar if not identical to those heard back on “Pi”—easter eggs, if you will, hinting that the two discs are more connected than they initially appear.

At this point, casual listeners might find “A Sky of Honey” a touch monochrome, its understated serenity offering little variation or conflict. “Sunset” seems to continue down this path, relying heavily on a predominantly acoustic palette. Still, you can’t deny how effortlessly it glides along on its soft, latin-jazz rhythms, or its ample, melodic sturdiness, most evident in the verses ending with the lyrics, “Then climb into bed and turn to dust.” When, near the four-minute mark Bush sings this line a final time, the beat briefly drops out, consumed by a much faster, Balearic-style rhythm. At this crucial moment, both “Sunset” and “A Sky of Honey” utterly transform, as if everything has joyously shifted. Briskly strummed flamenco guitar, castanets and a call-and-response chorus seem to add drama and tension into the mix, but really, those elements have been gradually building up to these final two minutes of the song, and they crucially serve as the suite’s first hint toward some sort of oncoming release.

“Sunset” closes by briefly returning to the more relaxed pace of its first half, followed by another recurrence—the birdsong originally heard on “Prelude”. “Aerial Tal” is a short link consisting of Bush singing along to the sound-waves of birdsong alluded to on the album cover while an electronic four-note loop plays underneath. By the time we reach “Somewhere In Between”, the sun has set and the world sounds darker (certainly bass-heavier) and fuller. Orchestral strings wash over an arrangement lush with drum machines, acoustic guitars, synths and some soulful organ. Whereas “Sunset” glided, this one shimmers, as does Bush when she sings, “It was just / so / beau-ti-full,” her vocal wrapped around the instrumentation like Sarah Cracknell’s. Both slightly foreboding and catchy like “How To Be Invisible”, it concludes with Bush’s choral declarations of “Good / night / sun”, followed by Bertie placidly saying, “Goodnight, Mum.”

As night falls, “Nocturn” slowly rises. After an extended, almost ambient intro that could’ve come from Brian Eno or maybe even Pink Floyd, a mildly funky beat appears and the song proper begins. Over a dreamy, enthralling chord sequence, Bush sings, “We stand in the Atlantic / We become panoramic,” and it’s a premonition of where this eight-plus-minute song will eventually go. These same chords repeat over multiple verses—like the suite as a whole, the song’s impact heightens as it takes its time. You may be increasingly aware that it’s building towards something, even if its groove never wavers, almost coming off like an extended vamp.

There’s a “ting” noise (either a triangle or a simulation of one) during an instrumental break after the six-minute mark. I don’t remember noticing it the first few times I listened to “Nocturn”; once I did, it felt like a rare discovery, a hidden gem of a detail surfacing from the collective din. It sets the stage for the song’s mesmerizing final third, where Bush’s vocals gradually appear louder, more forceful and passionate. So wrapped up in the deliberate procession of it all, you might find yourself caught unaware of intense it now sounds. “It came up / on the horizon… / rising / and rising,” she sings, elongating each “rising” as far as she can while still holding our attention.

Loving declarations of “a sea of honey” and “a sky of honey” return until, at 7:53, she and her now-massed choir startlingly exclaim, “LOOK AT THE LIGHT! CLIMBING UP THE AER-I-AL!!!” Something’s happening: the sun is about to rise. “BRIGHT / WHITE / COMING ALIVE / JUMPING UP OFF THE AERIAL!” they fervently shout, the music hitting a crescendo as they conclude “ALL THE TIME IT’S A-CHANGING! AND ALL THE DREAMERS ARE WAKING!”

And yet, just when you expect that moment of release, she holds back a little further. Aerial’s title track begins with a sole, fluttering instrumental hook—it’s the song’s foundation, but it just repeats itself in ¾ time in perpetual motion as Bush quietly sings the first verse (“The dawn has come…”). Then, 48 seconds in, a loud guitar slash and a stomping techno beat: “I FEEL I WANT TO BE UP ON THE ROOF!,” she sings, over and over, letting go of all tension and inhibition.

The rest of the song vacillates between the tentative verses, the barnstorming choruses and plenty of birdsong (and Bush’s infectious, unrestrained laughter.) “All the birds are laughing / come on let’s all join in,” she implores before a return to glorious exhalations of “UP, UP ON THE ROOF! IN THE SUNNNNNNNN!!! On that last word begins an extended, furious guitar solo, followed by electronic manipulations of those last lyrics where Bush’s words seem all jumbled together, pointing towards the absolute, transcendent bliss of release. A chorus of laughter (AH-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!”) repeats, and repeats until it hits a final, massive “HAH!!!” The music stops, the new day begins, and birdsong just hangs loosely in the air during the minute-long fadeout.

Apart from spanning the entire cycle of one day, “A Sky of Honey” doesn’t necessarily relay a cohesive narrative; then again, for the most part, neither did “The Ninth Wave”, really. The emotional trajectory is what matters, both here and, to a lesser extent, on the seven unrelated but complementary tracks of “A Sea of Honey”. Bush would resurface with two(!) albums in 2011: 50 Words For Snow and Director’s Cut, the latter consisting of re-recording of songs from The Sensual World and The Red Shoes; neither is essential like Aerial, but Before The Dawn, a triple album recorded at her limited run of live concerts in London in 2014 is a must-hear. It includes both “The Ninth Wave” and “A Sky of Honey” in full, with extended arrangements and even a brand new song for the latter: “Tawny Moon”, inserted between “Somewhere In Between” and “Nocturn” and featuring vocals by a then-teenaged Albert Bush. Given her sporadic recording history, Bush may or may not make another record as great as Aerial (or another record, period.) However, given that she came up with Aerial after being away for so long, I’d like to think she could do it again.

Up next: Emerging from a(n) (in)famous father’s shadow.

“Sunset”:

“A Coral Room”: