"Mummy, Daddy, the day is full of birds," says Kate Bush's young son at the beginning of the second of his mum's new 2cd set. Unfortunately for all of us, most of the fowl in question are named Tom, and are soon to be served up on millions of American dinner tables. Aerial has grown on me a little since the first listen, but it still has to rate as a major disappointment. I'd put it next to Lionheart as KB's worst record.
The material on display here isn't radically different, even after a 12-year hiatus, from what you'd expect from the artist. It's got less of the theatrics than previously, and the album certainly leans more toward flow than contrast (both between and within songs), but the motifs and lyrical themes are mostly familiar, although being a 47 year-old mum the adolescent phase appears to be over, finally! The real problem with the album is a certain lack of conviction of performance; you wait and wait for things to catch fire, but they never do. The vocals are very underpowered, often sounding like they're for private rather than public consumption (Bush isn't a live performer, of course, which doesn't help). Apart from piano and bass guitar, most of the accompaniment is just that, and not particularly helped by a bottom-heavy mix that acts to smooth out any potential spikiness.
Disc one, A Sea of Honey, is comprised of self-contained songs and is the better of the two. "Pi" is a great tune; it's based around a 3/4 sequenced organ pattern and has some great fretless playing and a very loosely-rhythmed vocal line. "King Of The Mountain" isn't the most immediately appealing KB single, but it's a grower with a nice skanking-paced rock groove and some of the more spirited singing on the album. "How To Be Invisible," like most of the album, goes on a bit long but manages to work up a little bit of menace--a quality not abundant here. The rest of the disc is so-so. "Bertie" is a nice little slice of medievalism and a reminder that, with the possible exception of S. Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely," songs in praise of children and spouses should be banned. The two mostly piano songs "Mrs. Bartolozzi" and "A Coral Room" are fairly ponderous (the latter is better) and don't develop much despite the emotive lyrics. "Joanni" features a good vocal performance and nice chorus hook, but comes awfully close in feel to Enigma or mid-'90s Mike Oldfield territory. And that's not good.
The second disc, A Sky of Honey, is, well, pretty pointless, to be honest. It's a continuous episodic piece that's meant to represent a day's passage. What a very, very dull day Kate must have had. I've listened to it several times and I still have difficulty remembering much about the individual pieces, it's all so structurally flaccid. Everything feels dragged out beyond its useful length, particularly the latter bits like "Nocturn" and the title track. "An Architect's Dream" is pretty, with (again) nice fretless playing and some effective keyboard contrasts, and might work better in a different context, but "Sunset" is pure Gypsy Kings cheeze. I really can't think of much else to say. Perhaps it's best viewed as chill-out music for recovering Romantics, I don't know.
The experience of listening to Aerial in its totality makes me wonder: was there anything there really, apart from the (prolonged) adolescent dramatics? I don't know, but I certainly hope that Bush doesn't let this sit as her final musical statement. Recommendation: Kate fans, you can't go home again.
Update: I may have confused some upright bass for fretless, silly me, but checking it out would involve listening to the album again: pass.