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Kate Bush always exploited technological advancement. In 1979, from just coathangers and Blu-Tack, the trailblazing British pop auteur pioneered the head mic for her vanguard Tour of Life. Her subsequent albums made her one of the earliest adopters of the Fairlight synthesizer that would define the ’80s. Before the Dawn, then, is a surprising throwback: the unexpurgated live album, a document of her 2014 live shows, her first in 35 years. There are no retakes or overdubs bar a few atmospheric FX. No apps, no virtual reality, no interactivity. She’s also said there won’t be a DVD, which is surprising given the show’s spectacular theatrics, conceived by the former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and a host of designers, puppeteers, and illusionists. The show, and this release, aren’t credited to Kate Bush but the KT Fellowship, in recognition of the vast ensemble effort. Yet in shucking off half the production, this hefty 155-minute, three-disc set (one per “act”) is also the best way that Before the Dawn could have been preserved, allowing it to tell its own story uninhibited by the busy staging.
I went to a show towards the end of the 22-date run, and was overwhelmed by how physically moving it was to see Bush in real life, since for most of mine she’s only existed in videos and BBC clip-show documentaries. The staging didn’t always have the same impact. The sublime Act One, as close to a greatest hits as we got, was stripped back—just Bush at the piano backed by her crack band.
In Act Two, Bush realized her long-held desire to dramatize “The Ninth Wave,” the conceptual B-side of 1985’s Hounds of Love, which documents a woman’s dark night of the soul as she fights for life while lost at sea. While her “husband” and real-life son Bertie McIntosh blithely carried on with domestic life inside a tiny, sloping living room set, a video depicted Bush stranded in dark, choppy waters (now released as the “And Dream of Sheep” video). Moments later, the real Bush reappeared on stage to fight sinister “fish people” who carried her body off through the aisles. The whirring blades and desperate search lights of a rescue helicopter descended from the Hammersmith Apollo’s ceiling, illuminating and buffeting the crowd. Despite some hammy dialogue, it was staggering, and in sharp contrast to Act Three, which focused on Aerial’s second side, “A Sky of Honey.” McIntosh played a landscape painter from ye olden times while a life-size marionette of a jointed-doll simpered around the stage, embracing Bush, who looked on in raptures. At 75 minutes long, it was a sickly, trying accompaniment to one of the subtler achievements in her catalogue.
With the visuals stripped away, some confusing vestiges of the live show remain on the record—mostly the stilted dialogue (McIntosh’s lines as the painter are cringeworthy). But otherwise it flows remarkably well: the prog grooves and piano ballads of the first act setting up the gothic tumult of “The Ninth Wave,” which comes down into the sun-dappled ambience of “A Sky of Honey.” The sound is rich and warm, but rough, too: imperfectly mic’d and properly live-sounding. The arrangements are largely faithful, even down to the synth presets, though sometimes the veteran session musicians form an overwhelming battalion. “Lily” comes out sounding a bit like Christian goth rock, and “King of the Mountain” is a victim of breadth over depth, its dynamics drowned out by every band member playing at once. It’s a shame that the terror of “Hounds of Love” gets swapped for sentimental optimism, but the band recreate that album’s second half to sound as avant-garde and bracing as any current young outsider.
Live albums are meant to capture performers at their rawest and least inhibited, which doesn’t really apply to Before the Dawn. Bush is a noted perfectionist best known for her synthesizer experiments and love of obscure Bulgarian choirs, but her recent work has skewed towards traditional setups that reunite her with the prog community that fostered her early career. With marks to hit and tableaux to paint, the 2014 shows were more War of the Worlds (or an extension of 2011’s Director’s Cut) than Live at Leeds. But never mind balls-out revamps of Bush’s best known songs; with the exception of tracks from Hounds of Love, none of the rest of the setlist had ever been done live—not even on TV, which became Bush’s primary stage after she initially retired from touring. These songs weren’t written to be performed, but internalized. Occupying Bush’s imagination for an hour, and letting it fuse with your own, formed the entirety of the experience. Hearing this aspic-preserved material come to life feels like going to sleep and waking up decades later to see how the world has changed.
“Jig of Life” is the midpoint of Before the Dawn, and its crux. It forms the part in “The Ninth Wave” where Bush’s character is exhausted of fighting against drowning, and decides to succumb to death. A vision of her future self appears, and convinces her to stay alive. “Now is the place where the crossroads meet,” she chants, just as her (then) 56-year-old voice channels her 27-year-old one. Despite her alleged taste for burning one, Bush’s voice has gained in power rather than faded with age. It’s deeper now, and some of the songs’ keys shift to match, but it’s alive and incalculably moving, still capable of agile whoops and tender eroticism, and possesses a newfound authority. When she roars lustily through opener “Lily” and its declaration that “life has blown a great big hole through me,” she sets up the stakes of Before the Dawn’s quest for peace. In Act One, she’s running from the prospect of love on “Hounds of Love” and “Never Be Mine,” and from fame on “King of the Mountain,” where she searches for Elvis with sensual anticipation. She asks for Joan of Arc’s protection on “Joanni,” matching the French visionary’s fearlessness with her own funky diva roar, and sounds as if she could raze the world as she looks down from “Top of the City.”
Rather than deliver a copper-bottomed greatest hits set, Bush reckons with her legacy through what might initially seem like an obscure choice of material. Both Acts Two and Three take place in transcendent thresholds: “The Ninth Wave”’s drowning woman is beset by anxiety and untold pressures, with no idea of where to turn, mirroring the limbo that Bush experienced after 1982’s The Dreaming. That suite’s last song, the cheery “The Morning Fog,” transitions into Aerial’s “Prelude,” all beatific bird call and dawn-light piano. The euphoric, tender “A Sky of Honey” is meant to represent a perfect day from start to finish, filled with family and beautiful imperfections. “Somewhere in Between” finds them atop “the highest hill,” looking out onto a stilling view, and Bush’s eerie jazz ensemble anticipates the liminal peace of Bowie’s Blackstar. “Not one of us would dare to break the silence,” she sings. “Oh how we have longed for something that would make us feel so… somewhere in between.”
Purgatory has become heaven, and in the narrative Bush constructs through her setlist, “A Sky of Honey” represents the grown-up, domestic happiness that staves off the youthful fears explored on Hounds of Love. For her final song, she closes with a rendition of “Cloudbusting,” a song about living with the memory of a forbidden love, which is even more glorious for all the hope that it’s accumulated in the past 30-odd years. Bush’s recent life as a “reclusive” mother is often used to undermine her, to “prove” she was the kook that sexist critics had pegged her as all along. These performances and this record are a generous reveal of why she’s chosen to retreat, where Bush shows she won’t disturb her hard-won peace to sustain the myth of the troubled artistic genius. Between the dangerous waters of “The Ninth Wave” and the celestial heavens of “A Sky of Honey,” Before the Dawn demystifies what we’ve fetishized in her absence. Without draining her magic, it lets Bush exist back down on Earth.Share