Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by e-mailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Kate Bush
Why it’s daunting: Almost every quirky, female singer-songwriter that’s popped up in the indie world lately—from Feist to Joanna Newsom to St. Vincent’s Annie Clark—has been compared to Kate Bush. Some of those comparisons are more apt than others; regardless, that kind of critical shorthand has perpetuated a caricature of Bush, one that paints her as some fey, inspirational Manic Pixie Dream Singer. That image probably isn’t helped by the fact that Bush has sprinkled her magic among a host of collaborators over the years, including Prince (who traded guest appearances with Bush on his “My Computer” and her “Why Should I Love You?”) and Peter Gabriel (who’s brought Bush to sing on a handful of his songs, most notably the bestselling duet “Don’t Give Up”).
Relegating Bush to the role of forbear or footnote, though, is a mistake. Although her output has dwindled to a trickle as the decades have passed, her initial burst of work from the late ’70s through the late ’80s is nothing short of visionary. Starting out as a piano-based teenage songwriter, she was immediately vaulted into superstardom in her native England—aided by an endorsement from her first big-name fan, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour—and became a cult figure worldwide. Her near-mythic status was heightened by her retreat from the spotlight in the ’90s. That withdrawal, along with her aversion to touring, has rendered her recorded output even more mysterious and otherworldly. Her catalog isn’t large, but her theatrical air, stylistic spirals, and operatic voice can be tough to engage—despite the fact that she is, to her core, a pop artist whose quirks and experiments always stem from a deep melodic and emotional curiosity.
Possible gateway: Hounds Of Love
Why: Featuring appearances by guests as varied as Killing Joke’s Youth and avant-jazz bassist Eberhard Weber—and boasting a miniature concept album for its second half—Bush’s 1985 album, Hounds Of Love, is one of her most challenging. In true Bush form, though, it’s also her most accessible. Hounds’ mix of ghostly art-pop, classical instrumentation, Celtic folk, sculpted space, and a surprise transatlantic hit, “Running Up That Hill,” cemented Bush’s status as a major innovator during a decade already tipsy on the future. Using the plasticity and sterility of ’80s pop as a shell to hold her pulsing, delicate meditations, Bush probes inner turmoil and fictional narratives using empathy, wordplay, and rich imagery. And on songs like “The Big Sky,” she yanks her voice from girlish chants to bloodcurdling screams—always controlled, and always in the service of pure expression. The most arresting song on Hounds Of Love, though, is its title track, an eruption of panicky strings and hammering heartbeats in the face of oncoming romance.
Next steps: Before striking out boldly into tomorrow, Bush—then 19—made her debut with 1978’s ornate, alluring The Kick Inside. The album re-imagines two of the ’70s’ most exhausted genres, art-rock and folk, by boiling them into a shimmering mist of weirdness. But there’s a world-weary wistfulness that goes hand-in-glove with Bush’s precocity: It’s hard not to hear a plaintive note of self-reflection in “The Man With The Child In His Eyes,” and “Strange Phenomena” weighs menstruation on a metaphysical scale. “Wuthering Heights”—The Kick Inside’s best-known song, and Bush’s biggest hit—is based on the book by Emily Brontë, with whom Bush shares a birthday. But there’s more than just a coincidental connection between Bush’s lush, intuitive artistry and Bronte’s high Romantic drama.
Bush’s third album, Never For Ever, was her most experimental album to date at the time of its release in 1980. But it’s also grounded—jarringly, and at times achingly—in the real world. Amid her usual forays into literary fancy and twisted love like “The Infant Kiss” and “Babooshka” are tracks such as “Blow Away (For Bill),” a tender yet morbidly playful tribute to her recently deceased lighting director. But it’s the album’s most pointed song, “Army Dreamers,” that shows Bush at her most conscious and least guarded. Simultaneously searing and cerebral, it’s a chilling antiwar waltz that horrifically humanizes the dehumanized.
It took Bush four years to follow up the critical and commercial triumph of Hounds Of Love. It was time well spent. Released in 1989, The Sensual World is a sleek and streamlined disc that further widens the gulf between Bush’s love of cold, modern sequencing and folk-informed warmth. No amount of microprocessing, though, can squeeze the heart out of it; in fact, the very subject of how humans interface electronically—to the exclusion of touching anything living, including themselves—is dramatized with skin-crawling sadness in “Deeper Understanding.” If Never For Ever can be patly labeled Bush’s political album, The Sensual World is her feminist one: The title track’s dominating erotica oozes lust, while “This Woman’s Work”—originally commissioned for John Hughes’ She’s Having A Baby—imagines a man’s awe in the presence of the interplay of life and death that is maternity.
Where not to start: The majority of Bush’s catalog varies only slightly in excellence, so it’s hard to argue that starting with either of her remaining classics—1978’s Lionheart or 1982’s The Dreaming—is in any way bad. If anything negative can be said of the two, it’s that they’re trial runs for albums that are clearly more realized (Never For Ever and Hounds Of Love, respectively). Lionheart and The Dreaming are both essential, though; there are just Bush albums that serve as better introductions. Likewise, her 2005 comeback album Aerial—released after a 12-year hiatus from recording—is a rich and brilliant sprawl that resonates much more deeply after having digested the rest of her oeuvre. On the other hand, The Red Shoes is undeniably the Bush album to listen to last. The single misstep in her career, it was released in 1993 after a series of deaths and estrangements within her family and circle of collaborators. There’s some decent material on it, but it’s lost among thin, watery production and halfhearted pop whiffs that don’t do Bush’s talent justice.
As tempting as it is to take the ostensibly easy route and begin with Bush’s greatest-hits album, The Whole Story, don’t. At a skimpy 12 songs—and sequenced, it would seem, by a random number generator—it just doesn’t provide enough context, let alone meat. And for an artist who built so much of her popularity and mystique on her ability to harness the music-video medium, her sole official concert video (and its accompanying live album), Live At Hammersmith Odeon, is a snapshot of a young, flush-with-success talent still finding her footing. It’s a fun and historically vital document, but its overripe extravagance isn’t the best way to get hooked into the cult of Bush.