Theo Bleckmann, Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush

How you take and feel about this disc depends predominately on how you take and feel about Kate Bush. I have never been able to warm to her brand of art-rock. The salient features of her music are her lyrical content, the sound of her voice and the studio production she gives her albums, and none of those have appealed to me personally. That doesn’t make them bad, just not for me: her lyrics don’t speak to my experience and imagination, her voice doesn’t excite my musical sense, and her production … well, here I am compelled to say that it is frequently bad. Electronic instruments are just as interesting and satisfying as acoustic ones, as long as they’re played in interesting and satisfying ways. Bush and her producers have never demonstrated, to me, much of an ear for timbre and seem totally unaware of the creative possibilities inherent in the combination of oscillators, envelopes and filters.

We are past the start of a revisiting of her career in popular media, especially through The New Yorker and Pitchfork, articles that capture the whiff of insecurity of pop music critics, chasing cool and promoting their own taste. People like Bush, that’s cool. I don’t, that’s also cool. So that’s the context for writing that Theo Bleckmann’s tribute album is to me, if not deeply involving, interesting and enjoyable through and through. I ascribe it to the taste and musical talents of Bleckmann and his stellar band, Henry Hey on keyboards, Caleb Burhans playing violin and guitar, Skúli Sverisson on bass and John Hollenbeck at the drums. The mainly acoustic treatments strip away the sonic vaseline from the original material, with the result, at least technically, of revealing how limited the songs are. Art-rock is supposed to me about more than a quasi-poetic quality to the lyrics, it’s supposed to challenge basic pop song form, and Bush rarely, barely does that. Her rhythms are ordinary — too weighed down by what sequencers can do rather than what musicians can — her harmonic sense is limited even in terms of pop music and any deviation from expected song form seems accidental.

And yet the record sounds good, and there’s no dull track. WIth just singing and playing, Bleckmann and musicians bring more drama to the music than layers of self-conscious studio trickery. Her big hit, “Running up that Hill,” builds from one point to the next and achieves a feeling of power. Songs that I had previously found embarrassing to hear, like “Violin” and “Saxophone Song,” work pretty well. The band is committed to playing and their musical energy is an incredible help to this material. But the key element above all is Bleckmann’s singing. The combination of the clear beauty of his sound and his unique expressive quality, where he holds back all obviousness from the listener, makes the sentimental treacle of “The Man with the Child in his Eyes” and “This Woman’s Work” not just palatable but listenable.

Hello Earth! has the perverse effect of offering final proof of why I don’t listen to Kate Bush while simultaneously drawing me to listening to the disc again and again. Take it for what it’s worth, which is an unusual and valuable bit of high praise.

UPDATE: Fixed balky purchase link and image, I hope.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.