In 2005 I worked underground in the bookstacks of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. My days were spent pushing trolleys of reading room orders, taking extended tea-breaks, and, if I’d been despatched to my favoured C floor (yes, it was like something from Being John Malkovich), the hours would tick by in a blissful torpor as I riffled through the old issues of NME and Smash Hits. Sadly, these nuggets of pop history have now been incarcerated in a warehouse near Swindon; there is no stackie thumbing them in a dusty recess.
Anyway, for someone who usually lives a little in the past, I was quite excited by contemporary pop music in 2005. Being in a band myself at the time, a band that gigged with some regularity in London, I was more aware of what was ‘out there’ than at any other point in my life. Many stack shifts were curtailed at lunchtime so I could hop on the bus to the Smoke and make a sound-check or a rehearsal. It seemed like a rich period for bands, one of those sporadic, brief purple patches thrown up by the British music scene when every third person on the Tube seemed to be carrying a guitar or scribbling down lyrics. I’ll be revisiting this in more detail anon, so won’t bore you with anecdotes from my days in the backrooms of the Putney Half Moon, but I might draw your attention to one top ten hit from that year by the Futureheads: an ebullient cover of ‘Hounds of love’ that briefly made them indie kings.
The Futureheads were my favourite new band at that time, and their debut album might still be the defining statement of that mid-noughties guitar-pop starbust. It was all catchphrase and crunch, tight in the jeans and even tighter in the harmonies. But it was also such warm stuff; never calculated or posed, it was a world away from London (speaking as a native of the North East, I can officially confirm that Sunderland is indeed a few light years from Shoreditch). At Glastonbury 2005, a few hours after one of the most apocalyptic storms in living memory, the Futureheads split the crowd into three sections, each with their own ‘aw’ or ‘oh-oh’, and ‘Hounds of love’ suddenly became the happiest sort of singalong, one of those archetypal festival moments when the stage radiates enough sun to dry the mud. Though it sounds unforgivably clichéd, I remember thinking at that moment that this was exactly what my twenties were about. As Wordsworth might have put it, ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven’.
Later in the year, I bought Kate Bush’s album, Aerial, possibly on the day of its release (amazing how hazy my memory of seven years ago is). It sat on top of the Futureheads in my pile of CDs, but the two couldn’t have been more different. Where ‘A to B’ and ‘Decent days and nights’ yelped about the frustrations of youth, of not having the answers to the big questions, ‘Mrs Bartolozzi’ and ‘A Coral Room’ voiced the thoughts of a middle-aged woman doing the laundry or the grief of a fortysomething for lost objects and drowned cities. Kate didn’t necessarily have the answers either, but only because she’d long ago stopped asking. Aerial and her latest, Fifty Words for Snow, are proof positive that it pays to take time out. Much as I discussed in the last entry on Scott Walker, there’s something magical about art that emerges when it needs to, art that matures at a point of sudden, epiphanic realisation, art that issues from moments such as mine in that claggy crowd of geeks and hipsters. It’s that jolt as you stand outside of your own body and realise that you’re an object; that you’re something to behold.
Kate Bush’s entire oeuvre is characterised by these complex issues of self-placement. One of the many beautiful things about the Hounds of Love album is its realism, its humanity. That seems quite a contrarian view; this is a work that devotes its whole second half to a sort of pre-Raphaelite, Arthurian fantasy. But the songs that people remember – ‘Running up that hill’, ‘Cloudbusting’, and the title track especially, are subtle explorations of human weakness, odes to the fragility of the human ego. ‘Running up that hill’ voices feelings most of us rarely allow to surface, imagining what it would be like to inhabit the body and mind of a lover. Even despite sex (and sex is never far away in the work of this most sensual of songwriters), it would require a ‘deal with God’ to swap places, an intervention of supernatural proportions. The thunderclap drums at around three minutes confirm it; stealing a moment from the beloved would be akin to Prometheus taking fire from Zeus. Still, the song’s wisdom is its acknowledgement that no matter how close you are to someone, there will forever be a wall. Kate has agonised over this ever since Cathy was left out in the cold beyond Heathcliff’s window; there’s no such thing as empathy. What genius, then, to balance it alongside ‘Hounds of love’ itself, a titanically dramatic tattoo battering in sync with the lovesick heart. The only swapping of places here is the transfer of metaphor. The realisation that she too is a fox caught by dogs, trapped and panting breathless in the crush and force of love, makes her ‘ashamed’, perhaps of having to express herself through analogy; ‘there’s nothing real’ about the situation, it seems to defy all logic. This is how people in their late twenties fall in love, you see. It’s not hearts on pencil cases and fervid diary entries; it’s much more catastrophic than that, because you’re old enough to know that reason should prevail and yet it’s invaded by the extremities of feeling. Nothing for it then; you just have to dive in. ‘Here I go’, she hiccups, driven by a momentum she can’t control. Take your shoes off, throw them in the lake. Let go, be smothered, give yourself up to the pack.
But it’s the first line that really impresses itself on me, and it’s absolutely Kate: ‘When I was a child, running in the night, afraid of what might be’. Bush’s career began when she was a teenager; she’s grown up in (and, latterly, out) of the public gaze, and when you listen to her albums in sequence you get a sense of psychological and emotional development virtually unparalleled in pop music. It’s extraordinarily moving to hear her son Bertie featuring on her latest recordings, because much of her best material has concerned itself with the relationship between the adult and the child they once were, or else with the child fantasising about growing up. From the off, there have been songs about menstruation, about carrying babies, about losing sons to war, songs from the perspective of a foetus in the womb. There have been women recalling their days of courtship (the astonishing snatches of Molly Bloom’s monologue in ‘The Sensual World’), and grown women desiring the superpowers of the playground (‘Rubberband Girl’). Of course, to her detractors, she’s a harpy from faerie-land, a pagan waif from a gothic novel; but even these aspects of her art are borne of a Carroll-esque conviction that sometimes the realm of the young bears more logic and sense than anything beyond the garden or above ground. ‘Sat in your lap’, from my favourite Bush album The Dreaming, paints the adult world as a nightmare of unfulfilled yearnings and unanswerable riddles. I always think of it as being voiced by a teenager on the threshold of responsibility, her head bruised by all that ricochet drumming (how on earth did such an angular, modernist noise make the top twenty? I’m forever in awe of the early eighties public). ‘I want the answers quickly’, she sings, ‘but I don’t have no energy’ (something utterly contradicted by the propulsion of the track). And then it all crescendos into some sort of druidic chant, invoking pilgrimages to Salisbury and journeys across the water. Knowledge doesn’t come from being a ‘lawyer’ or a ‘scholar’; it’s a matter of primal connection. It’s rather strange that among all the Tennyson, Bronte and Joyce, Wordsworth hasn’t yet figured among Bush’s inspirations. As he had it, the child is father to the man.
‘The man with the child in his eyes’ is, I think, the equal of any Prelude or Romantic sonnet. I could have chosen two dozen Bush songs for this blog, but on a good day this is the one that really makes me well up. Though it was released when she was nineteen, she actually wrote it six years earlier, if you can believe it. It is the work of a child, what a literary critic would call a piece of juvenilia. If you think of it in that way, it’s a piece of wispy escapism, the sound of a young girl sitting in an orchard with a jotter on her lap as the apple blossom falls on her scabbed knees. It’s hard to get beyond this, perhaps, knowing as we do that Bush wrote it at her parents’ farm (though she grew up in South East London, so the country maiden image can only stretch so far). But its richness defies the age of the composer. Despite its ephemerality – it’s barely two and a half minutes long – it modulates continuously, a butterfly refusing to settle on any one bloom (‘Wuthering Heights’ is similarly rangy, parading key changes usually only heard in classical music). This evanescence is hinted at in the lyrics, the love that ‘won’t last forever’. Is this a schoolgirl pash? If so, it seems to be on the borderline of acceptability, for who on earth is this man with the child in his eyes?
Well, he’s a figment. Only Kate sees him; I’d go as far as to say he’s her muse. If her love doesn’t last forever, it’s only because inspiration is transient, of the moment. This may be why the song sounds so sad, despite being ostensibly about something or someone that sparks creativity and brings temporary joy. At thirteen, she’s already learning that the most beautiful things in life are tainted with the stain of their own mortality; more Keats than Wordsworth here. The chord sequences mostly travel downwards, accompanied by reflective oboes and French horns. It’s all very mossy and damp and English-sounding, like George Butterworth mourning the decline of the plough-team or Vaughan-Williams losing sight of the ascending lark. This suggests seasonality, that in fact the man or muse will be ‘here again’; but it’s an ongoing negotiation between possession and loss. And between these two states is the shimmer and gleam and magic of knowledge; the bridge sections of the song, their glistening chromatic shifts recalling the silvery tinkle of fish in Saint-Saens’ aquarium, capture it like a magnifying glass channelling a ray into a flame.
It’s a little epiphany that sets the tone for all other such moments in Bush’s career, the ‘moments of pleasure’ she recalls in the song of the same name. And ‘The man with the child in his eyes’ is a kind of metonym for Bush’s art itself. It’s the seed, the germ, the point of origin, and it’s at the centre of all her other songs. The child in the man’s eyes is himself. Stripped of all adult knowledge, he rediscovers the innocence of infancy; the paradox being that this very process is knowledge. But he’s also Kate Bush herself. Every statement she makes contains the trace of her earlier incarnations; she is forever trying to balance adult disappointments against the possibilities of the Secret Garden. I think I may well have learned more from listening to her over the years than I ever gleaned from scouring the shelves of the Bodleian: little did I know that knowledge was sat in my lap all along.