Following her six months of promotional excursions through Europe, Kate Bush had four weeks to write songs for a new album. This time crunch put great restraint on Bush, and as a result she only wrote three truly brand new songs. Shortly afterwards, Bush spent ten weeks at Superbear Studios in Nice, France, recording her only album to feel like it was made under time constraints. Accordingly, Lionheart is inferior to The Kick Inside: it lacks the “new artist” thrill of that album and the preparedness that is a trademark of Bush’s other albums. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating collection of ten songs in its own right, and deserves more attention than the critical consensus has given to it.
As we’ve mentioned, Lionheart is mostly leftovers, scraps of The Kick Inside and the Phoenix demos reheated in a French studio. Yet for all that gets made of its leftovers status, Lionheart showcases a drastic tonal shift from The Kick Inside. It’s a much queasier album, with less assurance that the power of youth and precociousness will save the day. If The Kick Inside is Bush’s world-conquering single, Lionheart is opening night. It’s an album full of anxiety and stage fright, a fear of being seen and retreating into the dark. Yet it’s also full of compromises, with songs unsure of whether they want to be on The Kick Inside or Lionheart. The ridiculously titled “Don’t Push Your Foot on the Heartbrake” is one such song, initially recorded for The Kick Inside and rightfully set aside.
It’s hard to imagine The Kick Inside functioning with “Heartbrake,” which is more blatantly goofy than anything on that album. In the first verse, Bush has a mental breakdown on a motorway expressed through a series of car puns: “breaking down,” “stuck in low gear,” “fears of the skidding wheels.” It’s a vague emotional spiral, construed as a barrage of automotive verbiage. A character called Emma has been left high and dry by someone called Georgie, and responds to this loss by losing her shit on the road. Fittingly enough for this premise, “Heartbrake” is a melodically bizarre machine, moving from a tingling piano-led intro to kookiness, eventually landing on a bawdy, brass-accompanied shoutfest of a chorus (“don’t put your BLUES where your SHOES should be!”). Yet “Heartbrake” is so noisy it obscures whatever point it attempts to make. Additionally, it’s too undisciplined for its volume to even work, becoming white noise rather than grabbing attention with spectacle. The thematic dubiousness of Lionheart extends to the album’s quality, and the it suffers as a result.
Already we have a mediocre song on Lionheart. This isn’t particularly indicative of anything — The Kick Inside works in spite of “Room for the Life.” But Kate Bush recording a song that’s straightforwardly not very good isn’t an especially interesting event in itself. It’s more interesting to ask what Bush fails at. So where did Bush start from when writing “Don’t Push Your Foot on the Heartbrake?” In a newsletter of the period, Bush referred to it as being “written like a Patti Smith song.” This is an odd choice of descriptions considering that Patti Smith just doesn’t sound very much like Bush does in “Heartbrake.” Smith’s Beat-influenced, raucous NYC-grounded style is about as far from Bush’s sophisticated weirdness as London’s punk scene. No, the Patti Smith influence on this song isn’t primarily aesthetic. It’s primarily a structural influence. A number of Patti Smith songs, including “Gloria,”“Free Money,” and “Because the Night,” center their intros around a piano, bring in a standard set of rock instruments, and erupt with expressive noise in the chorus. This is a structure “Don’t Push Your Foot on the Heartbrake” apes, albeit with more randomness and less meticulously constructed tension than something like “Because the Night.” Lyrically, Bush and Smith share a sense of propulsion and escalating, which in Bush’s case consists of tearing down a motorway and in Smith’s consists of everything from heists to lusting after strangers. Yet Bush eschews the transgressive qualities of albums like Horses and Easter, and probably for the best (Bush has yet to release an album track with a racial slur in its title). There’s a melodramatic innocence to “Heartbrake,” anchored as it is in its protagonist’s frantic mourning of Georgie. Bush’s homage to Smith is little more than borrowing a stencil which she traces her own work around. This is of course the kind of work that uses patently ridiculous phrases like “but she’s so O. D. ’d on weeping.”
In lieu of an immediate musical analogue for “Heartbrake,” let’s compare this song to a more famous piece of media centered around a person’s internal state shattering on a motorway: J. G. Ballard’s controversial novel Crash. Ballard is legendary for his interrogations of modernity: his masterpiece The Atrocity Exhibition features a piece called “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” which literally landed him in court. He frequently positions large social structures, such as high rises, the mass media, and motorways, as analogous to the human body and symptomatic of deep-rooted entropy. This is… not terribly far from where Bush lands, at times. Sure, Bush overlooks the whole “nightmare of modernity” thing (indeed, “Heartbrake” is one of the few Bush songs to unambiguously take place in the late 20th century), but physical experience is crucial to the narrative of her music. Tuning into one’s own body to find spiritual liberation is one of the recurrent ideas in Bush’s discography so far. Whereas The Kick Inside took this freedom and operated it with unbridled optimism, Lionheart is the sobering moment in which Bush has to figure out what to do when the initial high of becoming an adult subsides. Sometimes growing up entails crashing a car. But if you’re going to do it, you might as well be romantic about it.
Recorded between July and September 1978 at Super Bear Studios in Nice, France. Performed live on the Tour of Life in 1979. Personnel: Kate Bush — vocals, piano, harmony vocals. Stuart Elliott — drums. David Paton — bass. Ian Bairnson — guitars. Duncan Mackay — Fender Rhodes. Francis Monkman — Hammond. Paddy Bush — slide guitar, harmony vocals.