IT IS an empirical fact – don’t anyone dare argue with me – that most pop artists are pretty much a spent force after a certain amount of time – usually not too long after the brief few years of their imperial phase (to borrow an expression from Neil Tennant, who is not exempt from the argument). Yes, they may continue to make good albums or the odd killer single, but the marriage of creativity and popularity that so often inspires the best work is often a crushingly short one. Every time I see an advert which boldly states “their best since….” I think “so what?” Elton John’s “Songs from the West Coast” might well be his best album since “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (it’s not, as it happens), but that doesn’t mean it’s anything other than a set of workmanlike, fairly plodding numbers so far removed from his seventies heyday that it might as well exist in another time stream altogether. I’m not quite certain what causes this – I suspect people just run out of things to say, or that the weight of having written so many memorable tunes becomes unbearable. Or that the success those songs brought brings about a removal of the ability to connect with an audience whose lives still consist of routines that no longer have any meaning to someone who gets an itinerary every day. Who knows?
Having said all that, I’m now going to argue almost the exact opposite – but only regarding one particular person. I wrote at some length not so long ago about the difficulties inherent in being a fan of Kate Bush (to summarise: the gaps, the silence, the humour, the fear), but I may have failed to mention the exquisite joys that accompany you along the same path. Lest I sound like a crazy person, I should point out that for a long time it looked like Kate was following the exact same career trajectory as – well – everyone else. By 1993’s “The Red Shoes” it looked like the game was up – a steady album with flashes of greatness, but with a palpable sense of exhaustion about it.
So what did Kate Bush do next? She went away. She stopped for a while, because she had other things to do. And when she returned, a full twelve years later, it was with “Aerial”, an album informed almost completely by the domestic and the everyday. It was also her best work, her masterpiece. No-one else comes up with songs built around the hypnotic qualities of doing laundry because few other superstars spend that much time parked in front of a washing machine. I bet Kate did.
It’s the smallness of “Aerial” that makes it so special, from the chalk paintings of “An Architect’s Dream” to the birdsong scattered throughout “A Sky of Honey”. The importance of the small things – how paddling in the sea is a tiny, but huge thing to do: “we stand in the Atlantic…we become panoramic” I did the same thing as a child, jumping in and looking back at my parents, shouting “I’m not in Scotland anymore!” It was a brilliant feeling then, but one almost entirely forgotten until “Aerial” reminded me. Small things.
But onto big things. I’ve spent today – pretty much all of it – listening to Kate’s new album, “50 Words for Snow”, and it’s – is it? really? surely not? it is – possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. A lot has been made of its being a counterpart to the second half of “Aerial”, a winter’s day instead of summer. But where “Aerial” looked inward, “50 Words…” starts with a snowflake falling and spreads outward. The sky never seems bigger than when it’s heavy with snow and that sense of scope, of hugeness, of voices high up in the air, is carried through these seven songs – songs where lovers meet and are parted again and again, endlessly throughout history, where the yeti roams the Himalayas, where ghosts and snowmen and Stephen Fry lurk in the icy fog. I don’t cry easily – another subject about which I’ve written a fair amount – but I can’t help it with this album. Even when it should be ridiculous – as with the very adult sequel to “Walking in the Air”, it isn’t – it’s somehow extraordinarily moving. Just to be absolutely clear, it’s about sex with a snowman, but I defy you not to be in a slushy puddle yourself by the time it’s over.
I could go on and on. Really. But the mark of a great album is that you just want to go off and listen to it again. Which is exactly what I’m going to do, safe in the knowledge that Kate has defied the rules of pop and hopeful of a bloody freezing winter.