Female pop geniuses who exercise their gifts in rampant, restless fashion over decades, writing, performing, and producing their own work, are as rare as black opals. Shape-shifting brilliance and an airy indifference to what’s expected of you are not the music industry’s favorite assets in any performer, but they are probably easier to accept in a man than in a woman. And such a musician, even today, is subject to the same pressures that have always hindered women’s artistic expression. Like the thwarted writers whom Virginia Woolf described in “A Room of One’s Own,” the female pop original is “strained and her vitality lowered by the need of opposing this, of disproving that”—by the refusal to please and accommodate that only a deep belief in one’s own gift can counteract. “What genius, what integrity it must have required in the face of all that criticism, in the midst of that purely patriarchal society,” Woolf writes, “to hold fast to the thing as they saw it without shrinking.”
Kate Bush, the English singer-songwriter, is one of those who have held fast without shrinking, so it is curious and instructive to see how certain cultural signifiers have been trotted out over the years to diminish her. Certainly, she’s had her share of respect and even adoration. Prince, Peter Gabriel, and Elton John collaborated on songs with her, and she has inspired younger talents; Tori Amos, Björk, Joanna Newsom, St. Vincent, Perfume Genius, and Mitski are all heirs. Every year, around the world, people get together by the hundreds to dance in public to Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”—a goofy but heartfelt tribute to her interpretive dance moves in the song’s glorious freak flag of a video. She’s gotten credit for her pioneering use of the Fairlight synthesizer, in the eighties, and the headset microphone onstage, for producing her own albums, and for evolving an ahead-of-its-time sound that combined heavy bass with the ethereal high notes, swoops, and screeches of her own remarkable voice. She is a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty, and critics have always noticed that.
And yet—in part because she emerged into the public eye at just eighteen, and with “Wuthering Heights,” surely the most literary and therefore one of the strangest hit singles in history—Bush struck some people as a wide-eyed sprite to whom music somehow happened, not an artist fully in command of her own ideas and craft. The evidence against this reading, even then, included the fact that Bush had defied EMI record executives to pick “Wuthering Heights” as the lead single from her 1978 debut album, “The Kick Inside”; it went to No. 1, making Bush the first female performer with a self-written No. 1 hit in the U.K.
In “Under the Ivy,” the music journalist Graeme Thomson’s smart and respectful biography of Bush, from 2010, the author describes how, early on, reactions to Bush often condescended to her as a child of privilege. She was a doctor’s daughter from Kent, raised by an affectionate, mildly oddball family in a rambling old farmhouse (I kept thinking of the Weasleys from the Harry Potter series), where she was kindly listened to and afforded time and space in which to play the piano and write songs. It was a house full of hidden corners and secret-garden nooks, a portal to the imagination almost as good as a magic wardrobe. The family was Catholic, and Kate, the youngest of three, attended convent school; home, meanwhile, was vibrant with the Celtic singing and sayings of her Irish mother. The twin influences of mystical Irishness and Roman Catholicism bequeathed an atticful of imagery to Bush’s songwriting. Her two older brothers, John Carder and Paddy, were early creative collaborators who became lifelong ones, introducing her to prog rock and the pre-Raphaelites, and, in Paddy’s case, playing a startling array of instruments. Her mum and dad loved her songs, even the ripe ones about adolescent sexual longing. “Our father bought a good reel-to-reel tape recorder,” John Carder writes in his book “Kate,” “and we assiduously recorded all her songs, typed out the lyrics, catalogued them and then posted the tapes to ourselves in registered envelopes—the simplest way of preserving copyright.” Later, a college friend of John Carder’s got David Gilmour, the guitarist for Pink Floyd, to come listen to young Kate play at home, and Gilmour, impressed, arranged recording sessions for her at a London studio.
Thomson contends that, at a time when musical camps were more fiercely armored than they are now (remember when people had to choose, absurdly, between punk and disco?), Bush got a bad rap from some music journalists for being a dreamy middle-class girl rather than an angry working-class bloke. There was grumbling about her tweeness, her witchy, unapologetic femininity. “Most of her records,” the jazz critic Richard Cook, writing about Bush in Sounds magazine, complained, “smell of tarot cards, kitchen curtains and lavender pillows.” That said, John Lydon—a.k.a. Johnny Rotten—loved her music. In a BBC documentary about Bush, from 2014, he allows that “a lot of my friends at the time couldn’t bear” Bush’s high-pitched, passionate warbling on “Wuthering Heights” and other early songs. “They just thought it was too much”—and, indeed, Bush is the high priestess of too much. “But that,” Lydon said, “was really what drew me in.”
In the nineties, when Bush’s output slowed and her public appearances dwindled, the British tabloids seized on another archetype for her: she was a “mythical recluse,” as Thomas writes, a rock-and-roll Miss Havisham. It’s a persistently alluring reversal-of-fortune story—the celebrity, especially one who blazed early and prodigiously, fading away, vain and lonely, ideally in a mansion. (See narratives stretching from “Sunset Boulevard” to the 2017 podcast “Looking for Richard Simmons.”)
But her real story doesn’t conform all that well to the fable. She was most productive between 1978 and 1994, when she made seven albums, but in the years since, she’s put out two critically acclaimed albums of original material plus a live album and a collection of some new versions of her old songs. She’s raised a son, Albert, who’s now in his late teens, with her partner, the musician Danny McIntosh. In 2014, she put on “Before the Dawn,” a twenty-two-night residency at the Hammersmith Apollo, in London, that combined theatre, puppetry, film, and music in a spectacle that critics found occasionally ridiculous and genuinely, almost unbearably moving. Tickets for all twenty-two performances sold out within fifteen minutes online.
In late November, Rhino Records put out a boxed set of Bush’s albums, plus some previously unreleased covers, B-sides, and other rarities. So, I spent most of last week in a Kate Bush-induced reverie—or was it a swoon? I know there were tears: you try remaining dry-eyed listening to “This Woman’s Work” on a cold November night after a glass or two of wine; if you do, I don’t want to know you. There may have been some ecstatic dancing that alarmed the dog; there was definitely some animated texting of lyrics to my children, who, at twenty-two and nineteen are both, bless them, Kate Bush fans. She seemed, in certain ways, so current in her embrace of femininity as power—protean, generative, and emotive—and in the fact that, for all her artiness, she also eagerly grabbed onto the contemporary pop sounds and tools that she liked (drums recorded with the heavy-hitting effect called “gated reverb,” which was favored by Michael Jackson and Phil Collins, for instance). She anticipated a busier and more nonchalant traffic between pop and indie music.
Listening to all the tracks on a complete boxed set is like going to a party and talking to all the strangers you’d normally avoid instead of the friends you already have. I’d pretty much skipped “The Dreaming,” for instance, the album that came out in 1982, and is regarded, dimly, as a dry run for her masterpiece, “Hounds of Love.” On the title song, a droning soundscape about the destruction of aboriginal lands, Bush makes the ill-advised decision to sing in an Australian accent. On the bouncy ska number “There Goes a Tenner,” about a failed bank heist, she makes the ill-advised decision to sing in a Cockney accent. The bizarre vocal gymnastics of “Get Out of My House,” a song inspired by Bush’s reading of “The Shining,” include hee-hawing like a demonic donkey.
Yet, with this listen, I discovered that I really liked the animalistic cacophony of “Get Out of My House”—for all it suggested about how few fucks Bush gave when it came to getting radio play or charming people in any conventionally girlish way, and for its brazen strangeness. And I loved a song called “Suspended in Gaffa.” It starts with a tinny music-hall bounce that swells into a rich, chunky rhythm, accented with a chirping, distorted vocal that sounds trippy and modern. The lyrics, about seeing God or achieving some creative peak, only to have the vision snatched away, were inspired by Bush’s Catholic upbringing. The title is a reference to sticky black gaffer tape—a metaphor for frustrating ensnarement. But it also sounds, marvelously, like a geographical location in which a character from a Paul Bowles novel might be immured.
And then there was the extraordinary “Hounds of Love.” Bush’s voice is deeper and more resonant than on earlier records, the use of the synthesizer is more assured, and the experiments are never awkward, as Bush’s sometimes can be. When “Hounds of Love” came out, in 1985, I was in graduate school, at Harvard, and my mother had just had a stroke that robbed her of most of her speech. I’d soon be leaving school for a year to help take care of her. But, in the meantime, I’d walk home from Widener Library every day in a pen-and-ink drawing of a Cambridge November, the metallic smell of incipient snow permanently in the air, and when I got to my apartment with the sloping floors in Central Square—sometimes before I’d removed my winter coat or said more than hello to my boyfriend—I’d put “Hounds of Love” on the turntable, turn it up very, very loud, and wait for the galloping drum loops and the salty-sweet emotional rush of Bush’s vocals to comfort and exalt me. When it got to the end of the first side, I’d lift the needle up and put it right back at the first track, “Running Up That Hill,” the song with the pounding beat and irresistible synthesizer hook about “making a deal with God” so that men and women might “swap our places” and feel what it was like to be one another. Those songs always evoked the possibility of a headlong happiness that seemed, at that moment, wholly out of reach. Something about the particular way that they projected roiling human emotions onto images from the natural world—thunder, the big sky, clouds that looked like Ireland, the little fox, caught by dogs, who let her take him in her hands—was liberating and uplifting to me. I don’t think that I ever listened to the second side, the song cycle “The Ninth Wave,” and maybe that’s just as well, for, as gorgeous as it is, it’s also about the saddest set of songs that I have ever heard.
“The Ninth Wave” is about a woman lost at sea after a shipwreck and awaiting rescue. As she floats in icy waters, she fights but intermittently succumbs to fitful sleep, longing for the ordinary human pleasures, wishing she had a radio (“I’d tune in to some friendly voices, talking ’bout stupid things”), and hearing the murmurings of her family, coaxing her back from the brink of death. The songs make poignant and musically ambitious use of spoken word and helicopter sounds, church bells and chopped-up vocals, Uilleann pipes and fiddles, and of a single whistle note at the end of “And Dream of Sheep.” The Irish folk musician Dónal Lunny said later that Bush had him play it over and over for three hours until it acquired the right “bend.”
On just a listen or two, the lyrics from “The Ninth Wave” worm their way deep. Take these, in which the woman, alone in the cold, dark water, imagines sheep in a meadow: “Oh their breath is warm / and they smell like sleep / They take me deeper and deeper / like poppies, heavy with seed.” Everything about those lines is right, down to the poppies, with all their layers of association: the field of sleep-inducing flowers in “The Wizard of Oz”; poppies as the source of opiates, and as symbols of remembrance for the dead, adopted after the First World War in Britain; poppies, which, because they have such wide, blowsy heads atop such tall, slender stalks, can look like they’re nodding off as they sway in a summer breeze. A staging of “The Ninth Wave” comprised a big chunk of Bush’s live show, in 2014, and for it she made a film in which she floated in a tank of water at Pinewood Studios in London singing “And Dream of Sheep,” tipped backward in a life preserver and sounding genuinely chilled and forlorn. She was in there for six hours and came out with a mild case of hypothermia—a very Kate Bush anecdote, in which what might be read as feminine kookiness and fragility could also be seen as artistic determination and stamina.
I’d more or less fallen off the Kate Bush bandwagon in the nineties, so there were two albums in the boxed set that were almost entirely new to me: the two-disk “Aerial,” from 2005, and “50 Words for Snow,” from 2011. Neither are much like her earlier work; they are quieter, smoother, more jazz-inflected, less ahead of their time than outside of it. They can sound a little hermetic—and, listening to them, you do sometimes wish that Bush, who has said in interviews that she doesn’t consume much contemporary music, fired up the old Spotify now and then. She doesn’t throw her voice up and down and all around with the same wild-child exuberance. (The childlike notes come from her son, whose singing and speaking voices are on both records.) But both albums are powerful mood pieces, full of lovely moments. “How to Be Invisible,” from “Aerial,” has a bluesy, sexy, echoey guitar line and some of Bush’s finest lyrics, describing an introvert’s spell for going unseen (“Eye of Braille, hem of anorak, stem of wallflower, hair of doormat.”) “The Coral Room,” from the same album, is a heartbreaking hymn on the workings of memory, the passage of time, and her love for her late mother. The album “50 Words for Snow” is lush and sombre, with melodies that eddy and drift, and a thirteen-minute song about a woman’s affair with a snowman, which somehow manages not to make you laugh.
One secret of Bush’s artistry is that she has never feared the ludicrous—she tries things that other musicians would be too careful or cool to go near. That was apparent from the very first lines of “Wuthering Heights”—“Out on the wiley, windy moors / we’d roll and fall in green / You had a temper like my jealousy / too hot, too greedy.” When she wrote that song, she hadn’t yet read the Emily Brontë novel; she’d only caught the end of a TV adaptation. But of course she got the essence of the book, sucked it in, and transmogrified it in her teen-aged soul, and she knew how to keen those lyrics like a ghost ceaselessly yearning.
Not long ago, I was reading another Virginia Woolf essay, about the Brontës, when I came across some lines about Emily that made me think of Bush. It wasn’t only because Bush summoned Emily’s shade in “Wuthering Heights” or, this year, wrote a short poem for her that will be inscribed in stone at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, on the Yorkshire moors. It was because Bush’s identification with Emily Brontë seemed like a key to her own music. Emily, as Bush once described her, was “this young girl in an era when the female role was so inferior and she was coming out with this passionate, heavy stuff.” Bush, like Emily Brontë, rendered femininity as passionate and heavy but also incandescent, allied to the natural world, an irresistible force. “Hers then is the rarest of all powers,” Woolf wrote. “She could free life from its dependence on facts, with a few touches indicate the spirit of a face so that it needs no body; by speaking of the moor make the wind blow and the thunder roar.”