Photo by Trevor Leighton National Portrait Gallery
Artistic genius, or howling, lost-on-the-moor madwoman? Kate Bush has always defied description—and divided audiences along the way. As British author John Mendelssohn put it, when Bush “came out of of nowhere in 1978 with her jaw-droppingly eccentric debut single ‘Wuthering Heights,’ screeching like a banshee, flapping her arms as though trying to take wing, pulling alarming faces, people either adored or loathed her.”But absence has benefitted Bush. Since dropping out of the music world to raise a family, a massive cult has grown up around the reclusive, publicity-shy singer. There are now Kate Bush fashions and fan conventions, while the truly obsessive celebrate her birthday as “Katemas”...
In this age of instant gratification, of rushed recordings and downloaded singles, it’s unusual to come across a thoughtful, unhurried concept album. But, then, England’s Kate Bush is that rare songbird, a gifted artist who rejects market trends to follow her muse. Bush’s latest is a quiet masterpiece, offering seven tracks of gorgeous, wintry piano-pop. The drifting “Snowflake” features the choirboy vocals of her 12-year-old son, Bertie, while the moody “Snowed in at Wheeler Street” includes a chilling duet with Elton John.
England’s pop legend is renowned for esoterica. Her first hit, “Wuthering Heights,” was based on the 19th century Emily Bronte novel. The ambitious video for her 1985 song “Cloudbusting” featured actor Donald Sutherland as an inventor and the singer as his son. Bush’s latest album opens with a Middle Eastern-tinged version of her song “The Sensual World,” now with words from James Joyce’s Ulysses included in the lyrics. Other reworked songs, including the piano-laced “Moments of Pleasure,” are equally beguiling.
Produced by electronica artist William Orbit, Katie’s fourth album has an elegant formality that suggests England’s best-selling pop diva has spent time listening to the veteran Kate Bush, especially on the dark, string-laden epic “The Flood.” But Katie is also capable of venturing off in more surprising directions like the playful cabaret of “A Moment of Madness,” the ambient folk of “Tiny Alien” and the ethereal ballad “Red Balloons,” co-written with quirky U.K. artist Polly Scattergood. Delightfully eclectic.
A product of the Los Angeles scene, Maria McKee is best known as the leader of Lone Justice, a short-lived country-rock band from the 1980s. McKee’s solo work has been equally spotty, her last release being 1996’s Life is Sweet. Somewhere along the way, she left behind the Emmylou influences and adopted grandiose, Kate Bush-style pop pretensions. Despite several engaging story songs, like the childhood reverie of the title track, most of the new material is overblown in the extreme. The worst culprit is “Be My Joy,” a song of agonizing self-indulgence.