When we think of musicians, fear isn’t usually the first emotion that comes to mind. Even when the stakes are high — say, the first run of shows in nearly four decades — audiences usually assume artists will still have a cool, controlled demeanor. Kate Bush, despite the absolute wealth of accomplishments she has secured over her decades of musicianship, however, felt deep fear. Her surprise reappearance on the live circuit caught many off guard; perhaps, even herself. In a recent interview with BBC 6, Bush admitted that calming her nerves proved to be a challenge every single night of the tour. Nevertheless, in the grand span of her career, fear has always been the least of her concerns.
As a woman struggling to make her mark in an industry controlled by men, Bush’s journey was never easy. Still, she was a force to be reckoned with, and her whip-smart intelligence, passion, innovation, and creative genius have ensured her a spot in Britain’s cultural pantheon. The tour that spawned her new live album, Before the Dawn, then, was one of the last hurdles Bush had to overcome. She had not toured at all since “The Tour of Life” in 1979, when Bush pushed herself to the point of exhaustion. The stress of bringing together a theatrical production of that scale, coupled with the death of a crew member midway through, would prove to be too much. While a handful of false starts and rumors persisted throughout the years, nothing would materialize until 2014’s “Before the Dawn”, and with it a string of twenty-two shows.
Beyond that engaging backstory, Before the Dawn remains fascinating despite a lack of focus on Bush’s greatest hits. “Hounds of Love” and “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” are relegated to the first of three discs, rather than acting as the thunderous ending that they could have been. While “Cloudbusting” acts as an appropriate finale, the show’s emphasis is firmly placed on two of Bush’s more experimental and ambitious works: “The Ninth Wave” (side two of Hounds of Love) and “A Sky of Honey” (side two of Aerial). That means there is no “Wow”, no “The Man With the Child in His Eyes”, and sadly no “Wuthering Heights”.
Bush, as always, never takes the easy way out. Much like “The Tour of Life”, the “Before the Dawn” tour is an amalgamation of concert, theater, and dance; without that multimedia extravaganza, the resulting album is a little awkward. Throughout “The Ninth Wave” and “A Sky of Honey”, extended versions of songs carry along a plot and dialogue that, without any visuals, sometimes lack for impact.
(Read: Kate Bush’s Top 10 Songs)
While “The Ninth Wave” was conceived with a narrative in mind, the subtlety of its studio counterpart’s story made it all gel as a listening experience. “Waking the Witch” still crackles with energy, but the additional two minutes of dialogue add little to the song. Dialogue-only tracks, such as “The Astronomer’s Call” and “Watching Them Without Her”, are interesting distractions that are safe to skip upon a second listen.
The transition from stage to disc is a bit smoother for “A Sky of Honey”, perhaps due to the fact that it was presented as one, extended piece of music on the studio album. While Bush’s songwriting isn’t as direct or attention-grabbing as it in “The Ninth Wave”, the simpler narrative of “A Sky of Honey” solidifies quickly and allows Bush to stretch out into her more atmospheric tendencies. The story revolves around an outdoor summer adventure, and its charming to hear Bush chirp with the birds in “Aerial Tal” and revel along with a jubilant crowd at the ending jig of “Sunset”.
Of course, this would all be for naught if the main attraction wasn’t up to par — but despite the time away, Bush still sounds absolutely astounding. A full 31 years after releasing Hounds of Love and her vocals still tug and tear at the heartstrings. It’s a glorious display of passion empowered by a tight and focused band. (The album’s press release proudly proclaims that “nothing on the record was re-recorded or overdubbed.”) While some of the heavier ’80s guitar crunch may sound a bit silly and outdated, Bush’s complex arrangements and knack for implementing uncommon, international instruments keep things sounding fresh and relevant.
(Watch: Masterpiece Reviews: Kate Bush – Hounds of Love)
With her usual keen eye for storytelling, a coda of “Among Angels” and a triumphant closing “Cloudbursting” act as a magnificent link between “The Ninth Wave” and “A Sky of Honey” — as well as tying up Before the Dawn rather nicely. Despite the 20-year difference between the two medleys, Bush’s overarching vision is all the more apparent in this grand merging.
While it’s tempting to look at this as an endpoint — a final and well-deserved victory lap — Bush has described this album as “a rather big comma.” This isn’t the end, apparently, and nor should it be. If anything, Before the Dawn is living, breathing proof that Bush still has the creative prowess and unique sensibilities that made her a superstar in the first place. Like most live albums, this is not essential listening for new or casual fans. However, for dedicated fans, both those who could and could not attend the run of shows, it is a reminder of the still very potent lust for life that Bush has always exhibited in her music, art, and personality. It’s a reminder that fear can be conquered in the most ambitious and uplifting way, that fear does not define who we are.
Essential Tracks: “Cloudbursting”, “Aerial Tal”, and “Among Angels”