Trust Kate Bush, never one to explain, to complicate the straightforward lyrics collection. She doesn’t annotate this anthology, unlike Neil Tennant’s recent Faber edition. Instead, subtler direction follows an introduction by author David Mitchell, who wrote the spoken-word parts of Bush’s 2014 Before the Dawn performances. Mitchell intermingles charming fannish detail with close textual analysis that illuminates familiar songs: it is God, he points out, not the devil, who allows the man and woman to exchange their sexual experiences on Running Up That Hill, an act of divinity rather than transgression.
But Mitchell is wrong on one key point. “Kate’s the opposite of a confessional singer-songwriter in the mould of Joni Mitchell during her Blue period,” he asserts. “You don’t learn much about Kate from her songs.” Which begs the question of how we might know a songwriter. It’s true that Bush’s personal life is so opaque that an interview betraying her Netflix habits offered grounding intimacy. Another where she described Theresa May as “the best thing that’s happened to us in a long time” burst a bubble some fans were keen to preserve. More dispiriting than partisan matters was her opinion that “it is great to have a woman in charge of the country”. If Bush’s songwriting tells us anything, it’s that her understanding of gender and power is typically more complex.
This understanding is one thread of How to Be Invisible, which splits selections from her catalogue across 10 newly curated sections, offering no clear framing devices. (Only Aerial’s A Sky of Honey suite and Hounds of Love’s second side, The Ninth Wave, remain intact.) Here is how we might find her, wedding Snowflake and Hounds of Love into a consideration of the perils of succumbing to love; contemplating alchemy and evolution from Cloudbusting, about a child losing faith in a parent, to Bertie, a tribute to how her son transformed her life. She addresses loss movingly: Aerial’s A Coral Room finds the memory of her late mother in “her little brown jug”; The Fog, from The Sensual World, asks how to love when its objects are transient. Houdini and Get Out of My House bookend her strident interrogation in how to remain open to pleasure but protected from deception.
Two sections dwell on gender. Joanni, her portrait of Joan of Arc, is juxtaposed with an indictment of masculine warmongering (Army Dreamers). Later, Bush explores masculine and feminine perspectives, contemplating desire (Reaching Out) and obligation (Night in the Swallow), never reaching trite conclusions.
If there is one to be drawn from How to Be Invisible, it isn’t that Bush is unknowable, but that life is: how much can we ever know about love, ourselves, the things we lose? She is never cowed by the uncertainty. Her songwriting suggests the only way to weather it is with curiosity; applying silliness as courageously as literary seriousness, balancing spiritual insight alongside unabashed carnality, domestic truth alongside fantasy, never concerned by contradictions.
Desire runs wild in the final section: Mrs Bartolozzi’s sexual laundry fantasia; the wily, windy Wuthering Heights. This headstrong pursuit has guided Bush. The question is not what we can learn about her, but what we might learn from following her lead.
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