In praise of: 'Breathing' Kate Bush (Never for ever, EMI, 1980)

'I see myself on the piano as a melody,’ Kate Bush sang on Lionheart’s 'Symphony In Blue' quoted by Matt Lindsay ’30 years on: the Dreaming by Kate Bush’ The Quietus 2012

Gets inside
Through her skin
I've been out before
But this time it's much safer in

Last night in the sky
Such a bright light
My radar send me danger
But my instincts tell me to keep

(Out, in, out, in, out, in)

Backing Vocals – Roy Harper Bass [Fretless] – John Giblin Drums – Stuart Elliott Percussion – Morris Pert Synthesizer [Prophet] – Larry Fast

Genre: Art rock, baroque pop

That moment where Kate Bush hides almost, singing the word 'keep' so quietly, to the point we can hardly hear it at the beginning, just before the release when she sings the word breathing. The genius of Kate Bush has many, many facets but one aspect that I’ve been noticing recently is her imaginative phrasing, the way she emphasises or hides certain words when she sings (and this changes, depending on the performance). It’s a beautiful thing to observe and sense. As it is within such detail that we can see her gift, in its entirety.

 “To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.” 
― William BlakeAuguries of Innocence

There’s such a sweet fragility in that half-heard word. It captures that moment of doubt, softer perhaps than fear that is felt before a decision is made, ‘to nullify (your) life’ .. or to breathe. This is especially effective here as it contrasts with the building, declamatory ‘I’ve been out before/but this time it’s much safer in …’

‘Breathing’ - the song that Bush described as her ‘little symphony’ is all about the contrast in different kinds of movement in music forward and backward (out/in) that manifests expressions of confidence and uncertainty. All of this is then upended by the magically strange section at 3 minutes: the post-apocalyptic dream-scape, that evokes the world after a nuclear Holocaust. She moves from the intimate to the abstract.

Originally, I thought the song was an expression of the intense feeling of longing, all mixed up with desire that you might have for someone you love, perhaps your mother, your beloved and the grief that is felt when they are no longer with you. It is, in fact, written from the point of view of a foetus (in the video Bush dances in an enclosed space of diaphanous material to represent a womb).    

Bush has said that her inspiration for the song came from ‘a documentary she had seen about the effects of nuclear war, while the tone of the song was inspired by Pink Floyd's The Wall (side three in particular).’ The wonder of the song lies in the intimate detail and the personalised delivery – something as far removed from notions of anti-Nuclear campaigning, as could be imagined - and the way Bush represents the idea of breathing ‘your mother in, your beloved in/breathing her nicotine …’ 

‘Breathing’ closed Bush’s third solo album Never, for Ever that came out in 1980 (the album began with the over-the-top cleverness and theatrics of ‘Babooshka’ – and Kate in a revealing Clan of the Cave Bear outfit, strutting, her angular movements lodging themselves in the imaginations of curious teenage boys the world over …)

Never for Ever was the first album that Bush had full production control and is still impressive many decades on for its creative risk-taking that at no point feels forced: the personality of the artist is the unifying element, alongside her constant cultural referencing: 

Bush’s literary and cinematic influences were again to the fore. “The Infant Kiss”, the story of a governess who is frightened by the adult feelings she has for her young male charge (who is possessed by the spirit of a grown man), was inspired by the 1961 film The Innocents, which in turn had been inspired by The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. ”The Wedding List” drew from François Truffaut’s 1968 film The Bride Wore Black.”Delius (Song of Summer)” was inspired by the 1968 Ken Russell TV movie Song of Summer, which portrays the last six years of the life of English composer Frederick Delius, when Eric Fenby acted as his amanuensis. Fenby is mentioned in the lyrics (“in B, Fenby”).
— Wiks

‘Delius (Song of Summer)’ strikes me as particularly influential in terms of the light-electronic alternative acts that have emerged since the 2000s in its delicate swoon and the way it’s mixed together ...

The album also included the superb anti-war song, ‘Army Dreamers’ (that includes extremely sweet-gentle and ironic male backing vocals, again upending expectations).     

Never for Ever was Bush’s first album to reach the number one slot on the UK charts and the first solo record by a British female artist to reach this status; moreover, it is the first studio album of any woman to achieve this, rather than compilations. Bush said that the album title alluded to contradictory and conflicting emotions, which pass, as she said: ‘we must tell our hearts that it is 'never for ever', and be happy that it's like that’.

Reviews for the album have a kind of grudging tone, something you often see in appraisals of the work of artists who are women (the Allmusic review saying, for example: ‘Bush's dramatics and theatrical approach to singing begin to solidify on Never for Ever, and her style brandishes avid seriousness without sounding flighty or absurd’ ...  an 'appreciation' from Sputnikmusic is even worse, concluding that the record was ‘no masterpiece’ but that it showed Bush’s work was ‘improving in all the right ways.’ … ah, merci monsieur).   

The album is also important in terms of Bush's artistic development in the way it demonstrated her interest in new tech; this is taken from an article in the NME:

As soon as I met the Fairlight,” Bush admitted in 1985 about the digital sampling synthesiser, “I realised that it was something I really couldn’t do without because it was just so integral to what I wanted to do with my music.” The possibilities are obvious on ‘Never For Ever’, the most lush of her albums to that point, where dreamy Minnie Riperton soul (‘Blow Away’) meets berserk vamping rock (‘Babooshka’). Its finest moment is the haunting ‘Breathing’ with Bush facing up to the burgeoning nuclear crisis as weapons move into Greenham Common. “What are we going to do/We are all going to die” is as direct as she ever gets, and has all the more grim power for that.

Easily the best piece of writing I’ve come across on Kate Bush’s work, Never for ever comes from Matt Lindsay ’30 years on: the Dreaming by Kate BushThe Quietus 2012. It’s full of fantastic research and persuasively argues for the importance of this record, as a transition towards a more autonomous juncture in Kate Bush's career and the way it gestured to her musical future. Here is his comment on ‘Breathing’ …

Bush’s melodramatic ivory tinkling is woven into a throbbing musical backdrop. Gabriel’s trusty synth wizard Larry Fast on Prophet 5, the ‘atomic instrumentation’ of Pink Floyd’s The Wall (side 3 apparently, ‘Hey You’ in particular) and 10cc multi-tracked vocal wash are all subsumed into Bush’s striking originality: a uniquely female perspective sculpted from male sources. Breathing’s bold studio craft was a strong indication of things to come.

Again, from Matt Lindsay:

(Bush) was also enamoured with the colossal ‘gated reverb’ drum patterns, without cymbals, Gabriel was cultivating with engineer Hugh Padgham at London’s Townhouse Studios. As with the Fairlight, this would become a salient feature of 80’s rock, perhaps most associated with Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight (1981). Collins had learned the technique while working on Gabriel’s Melt album and had gone as far as recruiting the singer’s producer, Hugh Padgham. This suggests a kind of forward thinking MOR phalanx during this period. At the time only Tony Visconti’s pioneering work on Bowie’s Low (1977) was this drum sound’s only real precedent. (Visconti was briefly considered for production duties on The Dreaming before Bush assumed full responsibility).

Check out this extremely touching live performance from Kate Bush of ‘Breathing’ – her skill shows through her ability to be so heavily invested in the moment, it’s almost as if you can touch her soul, while she maintains distance (until that lovely smile at the end).