REVIEW: Kate Bush – Remastered (Fish People, 2018)
One of the most dynamic and creative forces in music, Kate Bush has long been a divisive figure, her whims and poetry as attractive to some as they are strange or repulsive to others. An artist without peers—contemporaries run the musical gamut, from Pink Floyd to Peter Gabriel to the unfairly accosted Tori Amos—Bush has been relatively quiet for a few years, following a re-emergence in 2005 which ended a twelve-year absence that had left long-time fans fearing they’d never again have a new Kate Bush recording. Bush ended that dozen years of silence with 2005’s Aerial, an ambitious, artistic two-disc CD that harkened back to her 1985 masterpiece, Hounds of Love (via its two halves; one of several unrelated songs, the other half a conceptual piece) and, in its own quiet way, her earliest work, heavy on piano. Coming as it did after such a long anticipation-breeding absence which, in turn, bred expectations in her fans’ minds, it was a polarizing work but one highly praised, albeit some fans calling the conceptual disc, A Sky of Honey, “background music” unlike the aggressive piece they may have been expecting thanks to Hounds of Love’s conceptual piece, the brilliantly-overwhelming The Ninth Wave. There was some talk among fans that A Sky of Honey, a musical piece reflecting a day by the sea, might be too self-indulgent. But the piece is just as intriguing as its predecessor, The Ninth Wave, even if it seems more subdued, with only occasional moments of the flaring tempos found in that earlier work.
The return of Kate Bush’s original music seemed to then fade away; rather than follow up Aerial with another CD of new material, Bush took a step or two backwards, revisiting songs from the two albums that had preceded her retreat from the limelight. (During which she raised a son, Bertie.) 2011’s Directors’ Cut, released six years after Aerial, featured Bush tackling songs from 1989’s The Sensual World and 1993’s The Red Shoes, in re-recordings of her own material which, while occasionally far improving the originals (“Lily”, the gorgeous “Moments of Pleasure”) sometimes seemed unnecessary (an elongated and less moving “This Woman’s Work”) or robbed the originals of their magic (“The Red Shoes”, “Rubberband Girl”). It was an intriguing piece–offering glimpses as to what Bush’s work might sound like if the artist were to revisit her work on stage—but not a winning one. It felt as if, after six years since Aerial and Aerial‘s own twelve year preceding absence, Kate Bush had maybe run out of ideas. One critic put it as being a case of “the pram replacing the creative spirit.”
Any misogynistic judgement that Bush’s motherhood had displaced her creative mind was dispelled in 2011 when she released the striking and beautiful 50 Words for Snow. The album, a conceptual piece of a different sort, featured seven new songs (some quite lengthy) all tied together through the imagery (literal and figurative) of snow. From the rhythmic “Wild Man” (in which the narrator longs to protect a Yeti) to the risqué “Misty” (In which a woman has an affair with a snowman), any worries Kate Bush had retired her creativity melted away. The metronome might not have been as fast as on previous albums, but the genius behind tracks like “Snowflake” (in which she is joined by her son’s angelic singing) and the absolutely attention-grabbing title track (in which she is joined by Stephen Fry reading off a list of fifty synonyms for snow) is in full boom despite its wintry theme. The only real distraction is a woefully miscast Elton John, whose overdramatic vocal flourishes piss all over the otherwise romantic “Snowed in at Wheeler Street”, a beautiful love story-through-the-ages with the concept of reincarnation at its core. Fifty Words for Snow whetted the appetite for more unleashed Kate Bush.
That next display of her creativity, though, would not be on record but, to the shock of all, on stage. Bush, who had not toured since her one and only Tour of Life in the late 1970’s, had been assumed by even the most loyal of fans to have no interest in ever again staging a live concert. To the delight of all, she mounted a residency in London and presented Before the Dawn, a concert experience which saw her performing a few choice tracks before launching into two huge set-pieces: a live recreation of 1985’s mind-blowing “The Ninth Wave” and then a full-reproduction of “A Sky of Honey”, before bringing the production to a close with a few more favorites. While fans unable to travel to London hoped for a live DVD of the show, Bush decided against any video release and instead, in 2016, released a three-cd audio-only documentation of the stunning show. It is, to date, her last recording.
Throughout Bush’s 40-plus year career, there has only been one career retrospective, The Whole Story (there had previously been a boxed set of vinyl singles, The Single File and, later, a boxed set of albums through 1989’s The Sensual World, This Woman’s Work). Culling tracks from individual albums and slapping them beside each other on a “greatest hits”-style album is a difficult thing with Bush’s music; the characters and tones of the individual albums don’t always pair up well against elements of others, as proven by 1986’s The Whole Story, a collection of very different hit singles scored by Bush from her first five albums. Bush is an artist best experienced album by album, rather than single-by-single, as her albums are conceived as a whole–and the singles, elements of those longer pieces carved out for radio play. Even her earliest work, 1978’s The Kick Inside, presented a young singer in surprising command of her songwriting, with each piece as good as the singles pulled from the album and each pairing up with the other songs as equals, even if not a conceptual whole.
Those earlier albums—and even later ones—suffered from poor remastering on later compact disc releases. Hounds of Love, a daring sonic soundscape, sounded somewhat muted in its Capitol/EMI release. Bush herself seemed dissatisfied with her own work—or the duplication of that work—on The Red Shoes and The Sensual World. And fans had long craved some type of cohesive set, with her albums all pulled together. Thus, now comes Kate Bush: Remastered, a box set of all her proper albums, all cleanly remastered. Available as four box sets in vinyl form or two boxed sets in CD format, the sets include all of Bush’s proper albums (except for the retrospective The Whole Story), along with two CDs of rare tracks recorded or released as B-sides (from when singles had secondary tracks) and the two tracks recorded for excised The Whole Story (the pulsating single about an aural weapon of mass destruction, “Experiment IV” and the re-recorded version of her debut single, “Wuthering Heights” featuring a more mature vocal over the heium-infused original). Also included are remixes of (select) Kate Bush tracks as well as a long-overdue compilation of rare covers the songwriter had recorded of other writer’s material for b-sides or various compilations over the years, allowing fans to have, in one place, all of Bush’s most critical material.
The sound quality of the remastering is superb, with earliest albums, The Kick Inside, Lionheart, and Never for Ever, benefiting the most from the careful attention, feeling particularly warmer and reinvigorated. The Dreaming and Hounds of Love, both landmark albums as they were, remain examples of Bush’s genius. (Oddly, Bush has chosen to replace Hounds of Love’s original” The Big Sky” with “The Big Sky (7” Version”, a mostly note-for-note soundalike swap most fans won’t notice.
A more noticeable swap comes on Aerial, where the parts previously handled by disgraced performer Rolf Harris have been rerecorded by Bush’s son, Bertie. (Harris was convicted in 2014 of sexual assaults on four teen girls.)
The repackaging of Bush’s albums into this boxed set allow for something some US fans may have been longing for: the replacement of the “Kate-in-a-Crate” artwork that had been used on U.S. and Canadian releases of her debut album, The Kick Inside since 1978. The original artwork, evocative of Asian art and featuring a giant eyeball and Bush on a kite, here replaces the beautiful “Kate-in-a-Crate” on this set’s issue of The Kick Inside.
ABOVE: The original–and now restored–artwork for The Kick Inside (left); the “Kate-in-a-Crate” US and Canadian cover artwork for the same album (right).
That brings to light the packaging itself, which, in terms of the CD set, is sadly inconsistent. While the first box, containing albums from The Kick Inside through The Red Shoes, has each album consistently packaged in a well-designed, gatefold cardboard sleeve with a quote from one key song of each album and a booklet of lyrics, the second box feels like a compilation of overstocks. All four albums released since 2005 (Aerial, Director’s Cut, 50 Words for Snow, and Before the Dawn) are present in the second cd boxed set in their original CD release form; the issue is that each had a different presentation than the others. Aerial is most like the preceding CDs in the first set—a cardboard tri-fold—but then come the hard, book-like casings of Director’s Cut, and 50 Words for Snow. These gorgeous editions make one beg for the other CDs to have been bound in this same style. Especially given the awkward three-disc-plus-booklet sprawling mess of Before the Dawn’s packaging. That “The Other Sides”—the incredible four-disc compilation of remixes, rare tracks, and covers which proves to be this set’s particular jewel, with crystal-clear reproductions of “The Handsome Cabin Boy”, “My Lagan Love” and the alternate mix of “Hounds of Love”—is bound in book format indicates whoever was making these decisions (most likely Bush herself) knew that the book-like binding was most desirable.
Aside from the packaging inconsistencies, a missed opportunity is the lack of any chronology or history of these recordings. While Bush likes to let her work stand on its own and respectably never makes a spectacle of herself (a trait many personalities might care to learn), a 40-year retrospective such as this would have benefitted from liner notes detailing the history of each album and its place in Bush’s public history. These are each valuable albums and to not take this opportunity to not just present sonically-recharged new prints of each but comprehensive versions of each is a missed opportunity. A very different—albeit compatriot—artist, Donna Summer, had several of her albums posthumously repackaged and remastered in recent years and, in each, entertaining and exhaustive liner notes detail the creation of each album, heightening the listener’s appreciation of what was aimed for, achieved or missed. An artist of Bush’s stature deserves this same treatment and her individual albums certainly deserve that respect.
This lack of liner notes is most strongly felt with the four-disc entry, The Other Sides. While each track has an entry as to when they were released, there’s no explanation as to the reasons they were even recorded. Were these songs meant as b-sides? Recorded for film soundtracks? Written for but discarded from albums? Failing to document for the listener why these recordings were made leaves out a big part of the story. In Others’ Words (the cheekily-titled fourth disc of The Other Sides) is comprised entirely of cover songs—something not usually associated with an artist like Bush who pens her own material. Listeners who may be new to her or not along for the ride since 1978 may wonder why and when Kate Bush recorded such an uncharacteristically sentimental take of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” or why she even bothered trying to tackle a remake of Marvin Gaye’s classic, “Sexual Healing”. Adding in these rare tracks on this magnificently inclusive final disc is a win for the listener but offering no background on their various histories is a huge disservice to both the tracks themselves and the experience of listening to them anew.
Regardless, the collection of all this material is long overdue and stands as testament to Bush’s power. To merely say, “talent” is too trite. As her only songwriter, producer, and the one in charge of her career’s direction, her brilliance is unmatched. The boxed set encapsulating and pulling together the material from what is hopefully just the output of her first forty years is a must-have for anyone fascinated by this most captivating goddess. High quality in packaging and presentation and of the highest sound quality, this is Bush as Bush should be heard.
RATING: What are you waiting for? Buy it: Kate Bush – Remastered