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Reviewed by Dale Nickey
Ok, here’s the party line on Kate Bush’s second album Lionheart. It was the “difficult second album”; rush released too soon after her stupendous debut, The Kick Inside. The material was under cooked, it was recorded hastily. It was a commercial disappointment. Lionheart has always been viewed as the gawky, homely sister to The Kick Inside. It languishes in the same purgatory as Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and Michael Jackson’s Bad. Those were all albums that were tasked with following up a monster critical and commercial smash; too much to expect of any mortal record.
However, what if The Kick Inside had never existed, and Lionheart had been her debut? Take away the baggage and the job of reviewing becomes a little more interesting.
Lionheart is not a perfect album yet its still a staggering achievement. Had it been the opening missive in Kate’s discography, jaws would have still dropped just as far. This record is a potent example of the complexity of Kate Bush and her audacious voice, charisma and songs. Had it been her debut, it may not have conferred upon her the instant mantle of “Icon” (as ‘Kick’ did), but that might have been a good thing.
Sure, Lionheart could have benefitted from more time in the bottle or… maybe not. Kate had all the time in the world to worry over The Dreaming. Was it a better record? I’ll let you know when I get around to listening to it as many times as I have Lionheart. Lionheart is a grower that is unique in her canon. Every track on Lionheart earns and rewards repeated visitations.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. The song “Wow” is a wonderful confection of fantasy/pop. Equal parts torch ballad and bubblegum, it was a smart and successful single that could turn the heads of tabloid writers and music critics alike. And “England, My Lionheart”, is quite simply one of the most beautiful and unique melodies ever written. Usually in pop song craft you can hear echoes of the familiar; even if the artist is stealing from him/herself. This song exists on a different plane. That the lyrics are penned by a teenage girl is stupefying and magical. Why this song hasn’t been declared Britain’s national anthem is beyond me. It still might someday.
The epic “Hammer Horror” could be the subject of an entire review unto itself. By 1978, the term “Rock Opera” had become devalued currency. “Hammer Horror” is definitely a rock opera (albeit a tightly compressed and edited version of the form). Kate whispers, wails, moans and rumbles like both a siren and natural woman. She’s got some burr in her saddle in the form of a stalker, ex-boyfriend, ghost, or some unholy permutation of the three. Whatever happened, it’s now an ever-present nightmare of the soul. The tinkling piano ending turns the neat trick of being pretty and dissonant at the same time. The delayed reaction gong crash signals a melodramatic end to a brilliant and melodramatic record, and the cover art will rock your world.
Elsewhere, things get more eclectic and esoteric. “Coffee Homeground” courts Cabaret and Broadway and elevates both forms. Lead track, “Symphony In Blue” evokes a heavenly cocktail mix of Carol King on ecstasy and helium. On this album, even more than The Kick Inside, Kate takes her voice to its full, death defying limits. Many argue it takes listeners to their limits as well. Like Dylan, Kate’s voice is her signature, money maker, and albatross all rolled into one. One must come to the party prepared to marvel at her athleticism and then dig deep into the music itself. The rewards are there. Kate Bush is not a passive listen. We’ve got Sade for that. No, Lionheart is a three ring circus of emotion, estrogen and technique. And you know what? EMI put it out at just the right time. I’m glad we got two albums documenting Kate’s eloquent, teen dream genius. Soon our little girl would all grow up to be a woman. Lionheart didn’t do anything wrong, it’s just a matter of the paint on her masterpiece hadn’t quite dried yet.