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It’s difficult to imagine Kate Bush heralding from any place except England. It’s certainly easy to understand why she’s popular in countries outside the U.K., but Bush is a uniquely English phenomenon. She came from pastoral England and often sings about British culture. Her work, especially on Lionheart, is full of allusions to English and Irish folklore, and she’s predominantly influenced by British music (glam rock was also a chiefly UK-locked phenomenon). Unlike most British rock singers, Bush doesn’t shy away from singing in an English accent, as she herself has pointed out. Bush is uniquely hard to categorize as an artist, but she’s consistently staked herself out as an English singer.
Even more than most of her albums, Lionheart is cohesively British. This is reflected by such songs as “In Search of Peter Pan” and “Wow,” both of which pile on staples of British culture, and the album’s title. “Lionheart” is a word mostly associated with England, conjuring up images of Richard the Lionheart and British staunchness. Its connotation is of fearlessness and an endless march, of “God Save the Queen” and Trafalgar. Even the cover of Lionheart suggests frigidity: Kate Bush sits in an attic with gold cloth draped around her, perched on top of a wooden chest, with a stuff lion’s face resting on the floor next to her. There’s a standoffishness to it which the anabatic, orientalist cover of The Kick Inside lacks. The cover suggests that this is a more serious album, one that’s placing itself in a lineage of British stalwarts.
The title track “Oh England My Lionheart” engages with this British tradition. It is a classical song in a fair few regards. Unlike most of Bush’s music, the song is played features acoustic instruments exclusively, including Richard Harvey’s recorder and Francis Monkman’s harpsichord. If reading that you thought “huh, this sounds like a Renaissance song,” you would be correct. Bush described the song as being done “madrigally.” It’s not difficult to imagine “Oh England My Lionheart” being used in a classicist production of Twelfth Night. “Lionheart” sounds like a folk song, with its fixed structure of repeated chords, its descending melody, and its lengthy descriptions of scenery. This isn’t the first time Bush has interacted with folk music, of course. Bush often imbues antiquated styles with her own vision of strange things. With “Oh England My Lionheart” she takes the folk ballad and takes it on a tour through England, from the Thames to London Bridge to Kensington Park. Yet for its breadth, “Oh England My Lionheart” is dreary, positively crawling through its three minutes and twelve seconds. Bush is outright crooning in this song, doing little heavy lifting on lyrics like “give me one wish/and I’d be wassailing.” It’s an uncharacteristically mellow performance with an iffy production. Few songs could get over these hurdles, and “Oh England My Lionheart” is put to the test by them.
The production does the song a disservice, as it makes “Oh England My Lionheart” sound more conservative than it actually is. It’s easy to read the song as a nationalist ballad, but “Lionheart” is more nuanced than that. The song narrowly treads a line with its war-inflected imagery, but let’s look at exactly what Bush explores here. She’s living in a postwar England where “the air raid shelters are blooming clover.” “Dropped from my black Spitfire to my funeral barge,” Bush sings as if the country is going to land on her. Pastoral England is growing over wartime England. The country is a romantic lead here, giving solitude to those in it. “Oh England My Lionheart” is a return to Bush songs about spying on an inaccessible love. Bush cries “I don’t want to go” in the outro, desperate for her country to stay with her. Without England, there is no Kate Bush, and she knows it.
The problem with this is that it risks tipping into nationalism. There’s enough mythic weight and ambiguity to “Lionheart” that it avoids being outright jingoistic, but Bush doesn’t seem to realize the extent to which there is ambiguity. In retrospect she dismissed it as her “patriotic number,” but at the time of the album’s release she spoke keenly of English nostalgia. It’s not too hard to imagine right-wing Bush fans taking “Oh England My Lionheart” the wrong way. But to hold misreadings of a text against the text is unfair. English writers inevitably deal with mythic visions of Albion. Now we know what Bush’s particular vision is: tangible and easily grasped, yet still at arm’s length.