(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.