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Kate Bush - The Kick Inside Music Album Reviews

Released when she was just 19, and including songs begun four years earlier, Bush’s landmark debut is playful, experimental, and defiant: the sound of a young woman getting what she wants.

That Kate Bush named her debut album The Kick Inside might make it seem like her music is the product of a maternal wellspring. Women artists likening their work to their children is one culturally accepted way for them to discuss creativity; it implies a reassuring process of nurture. Another is as a bolt from the blue, a divine phenomenon which they just happened to catch and transmit to a deserving audience; no need for fear of a female genius here. But Bush’s debut, released when she was 19, says “Up yours” to all that.

Yes, the song “The Kick Inside” is about childbearing, but the young woman is pregnant by her brother and on the cusp of suicide to spare their family from shame. Subverting the folk song “Lucy Wan” (the brother kills his sister in the original), it shows the depths of Bush’s studies and her everlasting curiosity for how far desire can drive a person. She was signed at 16 but her debut took four years to make, during which she engaged multiple teachers in a process of spiritual and physical transformation. She pays tribute to their lessons alongside rhapsodies on unexplained phenomena, delirious expressions of lust, and declarations of earthbound defiance. Rather than feminine function or freak accident, these are the cornerstones of creativity, she suggested: mentorship and openness, but also the self-assurance to withstand those forces. Her purpose was as strong as any of them.

Besides, Bush had always felt that she had male musical urges, drawing distinctions between herself and the female songwriters of the 1960s. “That sort of stuff is sweet and lyrical,” Bush said of Carole King and co. in 1978, “but it doesn’t push it on you, and most male music—not all of it, but the good stuff—really lays it on you. It’s like an interrogation. It really puts you against the wall and that’s what I’d like my music to do. I’d like my music to intrude.” (Evidently, she had not been listening to enough Laura Nyro.) That reasoning underpinned Bush’s first battle with EMI, who wanted to release the romp “James and the Cold Gun” as her first single. Bush knew it had to be the randy metaphysical torch song “Wuthering Heights,” and she was right: It knocked ABBA off the UK No. 1 spot. She soon intruded on British life to the degree that she was subject to unkind TV parodies.

But provocation for its own sake wasn’t Bush’s project. EMI not pushing her to make an album at 15 was a blessing: The Kick Inside arrived the year after punk broke, which Bush knew served her well. “People were waiting for something new to come out—something with feeling,” she said in 1978. For anyone who scoffed at her punk affiliation—given her teenage mentorship at the hands of Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour and her taste for the baroque—she indisputably subverted wanky prog with her explicit desire and sexuality: Here was how she might intrude. The limited presence of women in prog tended to orgasmic moaning that amplified the supposed sexual potency of the group’s playing. Bush demanded pleasure, grew impatient when she had to wait for it, and ignored the issue of male climax—rock’s founding pleasure principle—to focus on how sex might transform her. “I won’t pull away,” she sings almost as a threat on “Feel It,” alone with the piano. “My passion always wins.”

The louche “L’Amour Looks Something Like You” treads similarly brazen territory though lands less soundly. She fantasizes about “that feeling of sticky love inside” as if anticipating a treacle pudding, and there is an unctuous gloop to the arrangement that makes it one of the album’s least distinctive songs. More complex desires tended to elicit her more inherently sensual and accomplished writing. “Moving,” her tribute to dance teacher Lindsay Kemp, is so absurdly elegant and lavish that its beauty seems to move Bush to laughter: There is deep respect in her admiration for him, in concert with piercing operatic notes and impish backing vocal harmonies that sound like they should have been handled by a chorus of Jim Henson creations. “You crush the lily in my soul” as an awed metaphor for the timidity of girlhood gone away is unimpeachable.

What made Bush’s writing truly radical was the angles she could take on female desire without ever resorting to submissiveness. “Wuthering Heights” is menacing melodrama and ectoplasmic empowerment; “The Saxophone Song”—one of two recordings made when she was 15—finds her fantasizing about sitting in a Berlin bar, enjoying a saxophonist’s playing and the effect it has on her. But she is hardly there to praise him: “Of all the stars I’ve seen that shine so brightly/I’ve never known or felt in myself so rightly,” she sings of her reverie, with deep seriousness. We hear his playing, and it isn’t conventionally romantic but stuttering, coarse, telling us something about the unconventional spirits that stir her.

And if there is trepidation in the arrangement of “The Man With the Child in His Eyes,” it reflects other people’s anxieties about its depicted relationship with an older man: Will he take advantage, let her down? This is the other teenage recording, her voice a little higher, less powerfully exuberant, but disarmingly confident. Her serene, steady note in the chorus—“Oooooh, he’s here again”—lays waste to the faithless. And whether he is real, and whether he loves her, is immaterial: “I just took a trip on my love for him,” she sings, empowered, again, by her desire. There’s not a fearful note on The Kick Inside, and yet there is still room for childish wonder: Just because Bush appeared emotionally and musically sophisticated beyond her years didn’t mean denying them.

“Kite” unravels like a children’s story: First she wants to fly up high, away from cruel period pains (“Beelzebub is aching in my belly-o”) and teenage self-consciousness (“all these mirror windows”) but no sooner is she up than she wants to return to real life. It is a wacky hormone bomb of a song, prancing along on toybox cod reggae and the enervating rat-a-tat-tat energy that sustained parodies of Bush’s uninhibited style; still, more fool anyone who sneers instead of reveling in the pure, piercing sensation of her crowing “dia-ia-ia-ia-ia-ia-ia-mond!” as if giving every facet its own gleaming syllable.

“Strange Phenomena” is equally awed, Bush celebrating the menstrual cycle as a secret lunar power and wondering what other powers might arrive if we were only attuned to them. She lurches from faux-operatic vocal to reedy shriek, marches confidently in tandem with the strident chorus and unleashes a big, spooky “Woo!,” exactly as silly as a 19-year-old should be. As is “Oh to Be in Love,” a baroque, glittering harpsichord romp about a romance that brightens the colors and defeats time.

She only fails to make a virtue of her naivety on “Room for the Life,” where she scolds a weeping woman for thinking any man would care about her tears. The sweet calypso reverie is elegant, and good relief from the brawnier, propulsive arrangements that stood staunchly alongside Steely Dan. But Bush shifts inconsistently between reminding the woman that she can have babies and insisting, more effectively, that changing one’s life is up to you alone. The latter is clearly where her own sensibilities lie: “Them Heavy People,” another ode to her teachers, has a Woolf-like interiority (“I must work on my mind”) and a distinctly un-Woolf-like exuberance, capering along like a pink elephant on parade. “You don’t need no crystal ball,” she concludes, “Don’t fall for a magic wand/We humans got it all/We perform the miracles.”

The Kick Inside was Bush’s first, the sound of a young woman getting what she wants. Despite her links to the 1970s’ ancien régime, she recognized the potential to pounce on synapses shocked into action by punk, and eschewed its nihilism to begin building something longer lasting. It is ornate music made in austere times, but unlike the pop sybarites to follow in the next decade, flaunting their wealth while Britain crumbled, Bush spun hers not from material trappings but the infinitely renewable resources of intellect and instinct: Her joyous debut measures the fullness of a woman’s life by what’s in her head.


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