Madonna and Kate Bush lord over opposing constellations in pop’s cosmos: the deity of public materialism versus the divinity of private mysticism. These two 47-year-olds have had oddly parallel careers, emerging onto their respective scenes—post-disco New York and post-prog-rock England—in a blaze of sex and self-sufficiency, trailblazing paths that barely existed for women in the music business before them. The house of Madonna has given us Gwen Stefani, Peaches, and Britney. The line of Bush descends to Sinéad O’Connor, Björk, and Tori Amos.
Now both singers have comeback albums of a sort—in Madonna’s case, after an experimental, poorly reviewed album and tour; in Bush’s, after a twelve-year maternity leave. Both are a return to roots, and to a kind of rapture—that of the dance floor and the English countryside, respectively. But they represent rather different responses to middle age.
Madonna is still searching, in her clumsy way. An enthusiastic latecomer to self-doubt, she blurted about her dissatisfaction with the nannies and the yoga and the chef and the jet on the underrated, punky-funky American Life. She’s not quite done processing—“How High” wonders about the fame and the money, lamely concluding “I guess I deserve it,” “Push” thanks a lover who challenges her, and the final track, “Like It or Not,” is about taking or leaving her, just the way she is.
Well, we don’t come to Madonna for lyrics. Confessions is pitched directly at the dance floor: Essentially, it’s one long, shimmering synthesizer riff. The riff gets faster. It gets slower. It crests. It falls. It stutters. It flows. But it never stops trying to make you swoon with ecstasy (in fact, it’s so tactile that it seems designed to be heard under the influence of her adopted country’s national drug). The album is sequenced as a D.J. mix, each track merging into the next with assistance from string sections, and the orchestral borrowings are no accident: Madonna has built a disco wall of sound.
In this, she’s as just-behind-the-trend as ever. In recent years, dance music has looked back longingly to the mixed-up glory days of early eighties New York, and Madonna’s chief co-producer on Confessions is the Englishman Stuart Price, known for uncanny electro-pop re-creations under the pseudonym Jacques Lu Cont. The lead single, “Hung Up,” which manages to sound both throbbing and wistful, samples Abba’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”; elsewhere, everyone from Donna Summer to Pet Shop Boys is quoted.
Yet Confessions isn’t really a throwback—it’s too lush for that. The first half, in particular, has irresistible momentum: The probable second single, “Sorry,” belts along, propelled by a catchy bass melody, and the grungy “I Love New York” just might be the disco remix of “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” The second half drags a little, and you wish Madonna would strip the synths back to work a bass line every now and then, but the only real misstep is “Isaac,” the latest bulletin on her spiritual adventures. Mixing wailing from Yemeni singer Yitzhak Sinwani with flamenco-ish guitars and clip-clopping rhythms, it’s an ersatz soundtrack to privileged dabbling in alternative religions.
Kate Bush, on the other hand, was using didgeridoos way back in 1982. For a brief moment, she might have been Madonna—after all, she famously got her start writhing around in a leotard and sung about masturbation on her debut album, The Kick Inside. But her palette is the baroque instrumentation of progressive rock, and she’s been exploring the weird nature-mysticism of Olde England from the beginning of her career.
On Aerial, Bush has become, literally, a domestic goddess. Packed full of lyrical and visual arcana for her disciples to obsess over, it includes a paean to her son; songs about Elvis, Joan of Arc, mathematicians, and painters; and a second-CD concept suite titled “A Sky of Honey.”
The best track, “Mrs. Bartolozzi,” finds transcendence in laundry. Over minimalist piano, Bush sings about cleaning the kitchen floor and washing clothes—“Washing machine! Washing machine!” she croons then cries as the piano dies. The machine’s churning water suddenly transforms into the ocean, and Bush is standing in the surf, waves lapping around her. Then she’s back to the laundry room for the wonderfully loopy coda, where she sings, high-pitched, “Slooshy sloshy slooshy sloshy / Get that dirty shirty clean / Slooshy sloshy slooshy sloshy / Make those cuffs and collars gleam.”
If only the whole album were that odd. The last time Bush did a concept piece—her 1985 masterpiece, Hounds of Love—she fooled around with Irish jigs, voice cut-ups, and tape loops. Her voice is still exquisite, but too much of Aerial fades into a soft-focus background of soothing synthesizers, murmuring bass, and twittering birdsong.