The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, November 23, 2005
THE AGE OF THE AERIAL

"Give me, instead of beauty’s bust,
A tender heart, a loyal mind,
Which with temptation I could trust,
Yet never linked with error find.
One in whose gentle bosom I
Could pour my secret heart of woes,
Like the care-burthened honey-fly
That hides his murmurs in the rose."
(George Darley, "It Is Not Beauty I Demand")

The wind is inescapable, unavoidable. It is the same wind which could either fuel or blow out the fire on Wuthering Heights. But this time it isn’t just about coming back. It’s about summoning others to come back; in other words, life. Why Elvis? Why Rosebud – and by Rosebud, is that Hearst or should it be Orson?

"Why does a multi-millionaire
Fill up his home with priceless junk?"

"The interiors were cramped. The garden was littered with thrown-away Macanudo cigar butts – this is a terrible image, a blindness to nature…His bathtub was full of old books. His closet had maybe thirty identical black silk shirts."
(David Thomson on the living conditions of the last days of Orson Welles, Rosebud: The Story Of Orson Welles)

She is of course summoning herself back, after twelve very busy years, but not simply her own self. She’s been listening extensively to the works of Massive Attack, whose once-removed imprints are all over both halves of Aerial; on "King Of The Mountain" the not-quite-splendid isolation is articulated by the slowly ascending triple string chords as well as the Ryuichi Sakamoto synth pattern in limbo. She’s impersonating Elvis (there’s a chuckle buried deeply, which will eventually emerge from its chrysalis) as well as trying to will him back to life, to deny that he died

(and here’s the section where I’m afraid you’ll need to go back to Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator) and remind yourself of what she said about Elvis. Did he die the day he died?)

to return that 40-year-absent smile to his face ("Looking like a happy man?"). Meanwhile the wind whistles, its chill palpable, and it’s evident that the same spirit breathes here as breathed on "Dead Souls" – Kate Bush is summoning the souls of the dead, trying to understand why or how they died. In the multitracked "blow southerly" chorus it is as if she’s caught in the act of exhuming them, dragging their bodies back onto the ground. And then every individual will live again, proud and triumphant atop their mountain – and they can never make their way down again ("The wind it blows the door closed").

A Sea Of Honey is a study about how life can expect to be lived once that door has been blown shut, and we choose never to open it again. Far from being a prelude, or a softener, to disc two, it defines everything at which the songs of disc two laugh, or ridicule, or negate. In other words, the simple and complex joys of A Sky Of Honey would not carry nearly as much emotional impact were we not aware of the tragedies slowly being dissected on disc one. A Sea Of Honey is the tunnel through which we are obliged to swim if we are ever to emerge into the light of blissful blue.

Grieving penetrates virtually everything on A Sea Of Honey – and where there is grief, there is often associated compassion for others who decide to shut themselves away from the world, for whatever reason, never more so than on what everyone else has mistakenly thought to be the album’s comic relief, the song "Pi" which is actually a heartbreaking plea to rejoin humanity, to realise that a world comprised of lists and numbers, of doomed rationalisation of random biological occurrences, is not a substitute for interacting with other people. "Oh he love, he love, he love/He does love his numbers/And they run, they run, they run him/In a great big circle/In a circle of infinity" – a circle from which he does not seem to wish to escape. Thus does Bush sing him a tender lullaby to try to prise him away from this dead world, a lullaby comprised of the number Pi extended to however many decimal points are needed, as though any were wanted. Gradually her singing of the numbers drifts out of tempo, after an initial sustenato of the number "3" to make it sound like "free." Her 5s are like cuddles, her 8s and 9s see her in a virtual flood of tears, her 4s are subtly sensual, and she freezes in dread as she rolls the fatal number "zero" around her tongue like a barbiturate she doesn’t want to swallow. The verse musically offers Hugh Hopper/Matching Mole chord changes, but the numbers are accompanied by rueful electronica which, not for the last time on Aerial, indicate some familiarity with the work of Boards of Canada (compare, for example, with "Olson" from Music Has The Right To Children, which latter’s number count stops making sense, eerily, at 36).

Both "How To Be Invisible" and "Joanni" could represent Bush turning into herself, to denounce her own wilful absence from the world, if indeed she can be said to have ever been away from it. The former is a strangely loping torch song in which Bush examines the consequences of thinking "inside out," the slow decay which will occur once you have decided to remain "under a veil you must never lift/Pages you must never turn" and subsist in a microscopic world of yourself ("Eye of Braille/Hem of anorak/Stem of wallflower/Hair of doormat")

"The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning."
(Sylvia Plath, "Ariel")

"Is that an autumn leaf falling/Or is that you, walking home?" The sudden sob at the word "mirror" in the line "You jump into the mirror" and the whistling ("The wind is whistling," remember) which bookends the song. But those two lines again – "Under a veil you must never lift/Pages you must never turn/In the labyrinth"…

…of militant Islam?

The lyrics to the song "Joanni" are accompanied by a photograph of Bush, the lower half of her face seemingly obscured by a veil and her hands clutched together in prayer. She may well be laughing, or trying to laugh, underneath that veil. The song itself, with more sinisterly ascending strings, returns to Massive Attack territory, or at least on the same planet surface at right angles to the narrator of "Antistar." With its description of a girl who ostensibly is Joan of Arc ("All the cannons are firing/And the swords are clashing?…/And she looks so beautiful in her armour/…blows a kiss to God/And she never wears a ring on her finger") but reminds Bush of someone else ("Who is that girl? Do I know her face?"). Herself? Or…given the apocalypse of the first verse ("And the flags stop flying/And the silence comes over/Thousands of soldiers")…a suicide bomber? The progenitor of Eno’s "Bonebomb" ("I waited for peace…and here is my piece")? In these two songs there is definitely the touch of the muezzin wall present (even, at times, bearing a bizarre but entirely logical resemblance to John Lydon’s voice).

And then there are the two devastating songs with Bush alone, voice and piano, which almost made me wish that the whole of A Sea Of Honey had been recorded solo, which cut into an exceptionally deep core of pain. First, "Mrs. Bartolozzi" – a song about a housewife watching the clothes of herself and her family spin around in her washing machine, and the fantasies which that engenders in her mind, primarily sexual in nature. What is perhaps most remarkable about this song and its reluctant twin "A Coral Room" is how unhurried it sounds – one marvels at the increasingly rarefied qualities of slow patience which Bush applies to her writing and performance. Note the many pauses in "Mrs. Bartolozzi" – it’s as if she’s thinking over what she’s just sung and hasn’t quite decided where to take the song next, which road to travel down (or which river to swim down). This was a quality very common in thoughtful avant-garde British singer-songwriters between 1969-78 (see John and Beverley Martyn’s Road To Ruin and Simon Finn’s Pass The Distance for two extreme approaches to this tabula rasa) – the tradition of Roy Harper, indeed the same tradition within which those formerly lost souls Bill Fay and Vashti Bunyan worked. Remember that Kate Bush was virtually the last British singer-songwriter to come out, or come into, that tradition before it was supplanted, or superseded; thus when listening to Bill Fay’s Tomorrow, Tomorrow And Tomorrow we can see exactly where Bush got the ball and how far she subsequently ran with it, virtually single-handed for the next 15 years. And what about Vashti Bunyan, whose second album, a mere 35 years after her first, finds her sounding 35 years younger than she did on Just Another Diamond Day (again, the patient compassion of a Bunyan song like "Turning Backs" is the other, necessary end of the tender Bush spine)? There’s something quietly significant about all these artists coming back from the cold in 2005.

But back to "Mrs. Bartolozzi." Wade in the Woolf waves of sensuality as Bush does so effortlessly here, gently transforming banal domesticity into a David Cox seascape. When she sings "Oh and the waves are coming in/Oh and the waves are coming out" with the piano ebbing and flowing in watery counterpoint, you can tell she really feels the movements which matter. "Oh and you’re standing right beside me/Little fish swim between my legs" would have been about a thousandth as astonishing if that couplet had appeared on the new album by Madonna, Bush’s senior by two weeks. Because we hear it so infrequently it penetrates far more deeply than the corporate wink which we pretend not to worship in 2005 mainstream pop (though that of course isn’t to say that the more intelligent pop operatives – the Sugababes, Girls Aloud, why the same intelligent pop operatives we had three years ago – aren’t sneakily and sexily dismantling those memes and know full well that they are doing so; contrast with Rachel Stevens, who torpedoed one of the year’s best pop albums basically by acting like a Young Conservative who had volunteered to work in Spearmint Rhino for a week for an ITV documentary).

However, the sea and the fish are – for now – merely a daydream. And it’s a daydream parenthesised by a nearly unspeakable pain. "I think I see you standing outside/But it’s just your shirt"…and if we look at the accompanying photograph in the CD booklet, it depicts a washing line in which there is a terrible red in the centre, as unavoidable as the red coat in Schindler’s List, bloodied…and then Bush virtually breaks down. "And it looks so ALIVE!" she screams, whimpers, "Nice and white." This is someone who might not be coming back ("And all your shirts and jeans and things"). The childhood memory of a nursery rhyme which intrudes towards the end of the song, and the mystifyingly terrifying first few lines of the song: "I remember it was that Wednesday/Oh when it rained and rained/They traipsed mud all over the house/It took hours and hours to scrub it out." And the song’s progenitor is obsessed with getting everything clean – note how the words shiny, clean and white keep reoccurring throughout – that you wonder: what horror is she trying to erase? Who were "they"? The Gestapo? Come to take her husband and children away? Was Mrs. Bartolozzi...interfered with?

Finally there is the option of drowning in A Sea Of Honey’s closing song "A Coral Room," a song which continues to leave me speechless as, with its visions of ruined houses, of past lives ("And the planes came crashing down"), the memories we clutched to our breasts, held against our hearts, now in disrepair, a broken home for spiders, it quietly sums up what for me has been the overriding trend of 2005’s important music – the feeling that, especially after both 7/7 and Hurricane Katrina, it’s after the end of the world (if Bush doesn’t mind my citing Sun Ra, which I’m sure she wouldn’t) and we’re engaged in a salvage operation. Think of the Shortwave Set’s reclaiming of battered 1974 MoR, their refusal to let their source material rot; of Eno’s generously gracious hymns of solace to a dying world (notwithstanding the deadly punchline of the final track on Another Day On Earth); Saint Etienne’s sadly wise realisation that all those Subbuteo catalogues and Gibb Brothers 45s ultimately count for nothing in the face of destruction (can anyone listen to "Side Streets" now and not shiver at the thought of 7/7? "I’ll probably get it tomorrow/’Til then…"); Antony’s mutation from boy to guhl; Rufus and Martha trying to redefine the pods from which they emerged; King Britt bringing Sister Gertrude Morgan back; the Arcade Fire bringing EVERYTHING back; Bill Fay being brought back – somehow it is all summed up in "A Coral Room," especially in that deathly pause between Bush’s first "What do you feel?" and her calmly tearful "My mother. And her little brown jug" (again a childhood nursery rhyme echoes in the collective memory, sung here by one Michael Wood, who may or may not be the television historian). When Bush sings "See it fall" it sounds as though she has plunged 30,000 feet into the abyss. Her tiny cry of "Oh little spider" also reminds us of Cat Power’s reading of "Crawling King Snake." At last, she turns to you, to me, to us, and her voice soars with choked emotion as she demands "Put your hand over the side of the boat. What do you feel?"

The centrepiece, the lynchpin, of this entire sequence of music is of course "Bertie," Bush’s ode to her son, arranged and performed by members of my favourite group the Dufay Collective as a 15th-century estampie realigned by John Dowland. Note how she cannot allow her larynx to let go of the downward cascade of the word "sweet" in "Sweet dreams" and the words-are-really-no-good-for-this-kind-of-thing inarticulate genius couplet of "You bring me so much joy/And then you bring me/More joy," worthy of Marvin Gaye purely because of how she sings it. But the medieval roundelay is minor key throughout, and sometimes she sounds as if she’s weeping. Has her displacement of time meant that she has seen forward to Bertie’s death, or her
own?

"How then does light return to the world after the eclipse of the sun? Miraculously. Frailly. In thin stripes. It hangs like a glass cage. It is a hoop to be fractured by a tiny jar. There is a spark there. Next moment a flush of dun. Then a vapour as if earth were breathing in and out, once, twice, for the first time. Then under the dullness someone walks with a green light. Then off twists a white wraith. The woods throb blue and green, and gradually the fields drink in red, gold, brown. Suddenly a river snatches a blue light. The earth absorbs colour like a sponge slowly drinking water. It puts on weight; rounds itself; hangs pendent; settles and swings beneath our feet."
(Virginia Woolf, The Waves, whose prelude should perhaps not be read until you’ve heard the album, as it pretty well gives away the entire plot)

Suddenly…there is colour. A beneficent lightness. A child’s voice. "Mummy? Daddy? The day is full of birds. Sounds like they’re saying words."

"A. Sky. Of. Honey." Or, if you twist your ear to 45 degrees, "Don’t. Go. Oh. Bertie."

Even as the sun and the piano and the birds of "Prologue" rise upwards and ever upwards, Bush is already foreseeing transience and non-existence. "Every time you leave us/So Summer will be gone/So you’ll never grow old to us," even as the piano magically unfolds in ascending scales and arpeggios, and the bass, drums and orchestra make discreet entries, even as Bush has to switch to Italian to express what English can’t quite ("Like the light in Italy/Lost its way across the sea"). Just as in "A Coral Room" the patterns of the melody echo the thoughts of Bush’s voice; they come after her words, as opposed to merely erecting a framework for them. Bush’s melodies will go exactly the way Bush wants them to, and at the speed which she decides – slow and patient.

"Some dark accents coming in from that side…"

Now it is nightfall, and the childish joys of that "lovely afternoon" become distinctly carnal and not a little pagan. "Sunset" is an exquisite scribble of Euro-Tropicana which wouldn’t have been out of place on the stunning Nine Horses album (Snow Borne Sorrow, or David Sylvian Was Right All Along). Bush sings wondrously of colours ("The most beautiful iridescent blue") but again worries about the horror of non-existence – that pause which comes after the first delivery of "Where sands sing in crimson, red and rust – Then climb into bed and turn to dust," and which amplifies its pain in the lines "Keep us close to your heart/So if the skies turn dark/We may live on in/Comets and stars." It’s an ECM samba for the end of the world (and distinctly ECM, as Eberhard Weber and Peter Erskine are the rhythm section on this track). However, after the last "climb into bed and turn to dust," Bush turns her back defiantly on mortality and ups the tempo to a Balearic house rave-up. "The day writes the words right across the sky/They go all the way up to the top of the night." Running up that hill again…to encounter a brief and astonishing episode ("Aerial Tal") where Bush suddenly gives us some vocal free improvisation in duet with the blackbirds, which obviously makes me think that, apart from Virginia Astley and maybe Messaien, she’s also heard the Evan Parker With Birds album, but even this is but a mere prelude to…

"We went up to the top of the highest hill. And stopped. Still."

And – again, like stout Cortez from whose notion of the Pacific I can never seem to tear myself away – Bush discovers…the eternal (or Joy Division’s "The Eternal")? "Something In Between" is the first of Aerial’s supreme one-two punch which gives me…just what I always wanted? Deep oceans of synthesisers, whale guitars and subaquiline bass suddenly but gently veer into view as Bush sings of being not quite this and not quite that. "Somewhere in between/The waxing and the waning wave/Somewhere in between/What the song and silence say…/Sleep and waking up…/Breathing out and breathing in…" Between man and woman, between jouissance and ennui, between life and death, between boy and guhl…

"Oh I’m scared of the middle place, between life and nowhere"
(Antony, "Hope There’s Someone")

But Kate Bush isn’t scared; she’s simply awed – that trembling sopranino sustenato of a note to which she clings throughout "Oh how we have longed for something that would make us feel so…" Words are really no good for this kind of thing, but the thing is, the twirls and curlicues of the arrangement set beside her voice, the echoes of a generation ago when I did feel so…but I’m thinking of a marriage between the Cocteau Twins’ "Ribbed And Veined" and Boards of Canada’s "Peacock Tail" and Björk’s "All Is Full Of Love" and, most deeply of all, Billy MacKenzie’s "At The Edge Of The World" because something here makes me hear that Kate Bush has become the new lead singer of the Associates and unless you’re a 1982 child like me you won’t know how that makes me feel, though you could make a decent guess and perhaps realise that Kate Bush becoming the new lead singer of the Associates is for me an infinitely more infinite prospect than Madonna becoming the new lead singer of Zoot Woman. And those gentle backing vocals, provided by Gary Brooker, the voice of Procol Harum, the co-author of "A Salty Dog," promising us that we can never really truly die, capped by the tender double meaning and let-me-die-now-poignant punchline which I won’t spoil for you, suffice to point out that it transposes the spirit of the closing two minutes of ELO’s "Mr Blue Sky" into the closing two minutes of George Crumb’s "Makrokosmos III," and unless you’re a 1978 child like me who waited 27 years for the two to come together…well, guess with a kiss.

And then, incredibly, there is "Nocturn," the song of the year, maybe of the century, possibly of the millennium, not that I anticipate personally living long enough to ratify either of the two latter options. The "sweet dreams" refrain returns, and out of tempo Bush oscillates as wildly but as gently as Julie Tippetts at the beginning of side three of Keith Tippett’s Frames.
"Everyone is sleeping. We go driving into the moonlight"…

"Could you see the guy who was driving?"
(Kate Bush, "King Of The Mountain")

…and then the most delicate and most gorgeous bass and percussion line you’ve ever heard eases its way in like the first tentative wave as Kate sings as tenderly as she has ever sung, quiet and wondering. "Could be in a dream/Our clothes are on the beach," and you can’t quite believe what’s happening here, now it’s Judee Sill singing Propaganda’s "Dream Within A Dream" and did you think you’d live long enough to witness that? The song gently ascends with that slow patience, not hurrying to reach ecstasy, and yes…"No one, no one is here" (even though everyone is) and…OH MY FUCKING GOD…"We stand in the Atlantic/We become PANORAMIC" and it soars above all of us, climbing higher and unbelievably higher, as if trying to drag Varese and Meek down from their clouds, "The stars are caught in our hair/The stars are on our fingers/A veil of diamond dust," and then you notice that Joe Boyd is thanked in the sleeve credits and fuck me if Kate Bush, who NEVER stopped believing in the Incredible String Band, is trying to make 1967 live again as the eight-year-old Kate Bush imagined she remembered it. The washing machine now long gone – "The sea’s around our legs/In milky, silky water" – they sink into ecstasy ("We dive deeper and deeper") until the unreal sun comes up and a sudden dawn chorus howls in rage against the dying night ("Look at the light, all the time it’s a-changing (Bob Dylan!!)/Look at the light, climbing up the Aerial") because it’s fuck me yes yes yes a thousand times yes Oxford London Toronto YES

AND ALL OF THE DREAMERS ARE WAKING

She’s up, and she can’t come down. Finally, "Aerial," the song itself – and it’s Frankie’s "Relax" in 6/8, a thumping sex beat as Bush finally cuts the strings of restraint and screams as only she can except up until this moment on Aerial she hasn’t actually done so but she screams "I’ve gotta be up on the roof! Up, up on the roof! In the sun!" and then the scream turns into a laugh and she turns into a bird

and then the guitarist, Danny MacIntosh, who is actually Bertie’s daddy, who has so far kept a similarly reticent profile, suddenly erupts with Hendrix lava, interacting with, fucking, Bush’s cackles ("Come on let’s all join in!") and she keeps laughing, is it at us, or with us, and it’s frightening, or it’s liberating, and then suddenly there’s nothing except the dawn chorus of the blackbirds and the now distant echoes of laughter because they are now ghosts and they are happy and life continues anyway.

"The light struck upon the trees in the garden, making one leaf transparent and then another. One bird chirped high up; there was a pause; another chirped lower down. The sun sharpened the walls of the house, and rested like the tip of a fan upon a white blind and made a blue finger-print of shadow under the leaf by the bedroom window. The blind stirred slightly, but all within was dim and unsubstantial. The birds sang their blank melody outside."
(Woolf, The Waves, from the Prelude)

Or, like me, you might prefer the following option:
"And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room, an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to others, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one."
(John Donne, "The Good-Morrow")

For L.G., who should have heard Aerial,
And for L.F., who thankfully can.


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