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Upon the arrival of “All We Ever Look For,” everything changes once again. With its opening hook, a synthesized whistle overlaid upon an atypically minimal piano part, it immediately becomes clear that Kate Bush’s style of songwriting and composing has changed. Not only has her ubiquitous piano been relegated to a supporting role, the song sounds like it’s been built from its rhythm, which works like a frequently pausing, creaky wheel that thuds on every downbeat. Bush’s piano and an acoustic guitar are present in the mix, but the relationship of “All We Ever Look for” to conventional rock instrumentation ends there, with its menagerie of synthesizers and classical instruments. The world of Kate Bush has undergone another metamorphosis — the old world has gotten considerably stranger.
Bush’s churning vocal begins with a sermon on the nature of families: “just look at your father/and you’ll see how you took after him/me, I’m just another like my brother/of my mother’s genes.” She places emphasis on the downbeat of each bar, singing the lines as “just LOOK at your FA-ther/and you’ll SEE how you took after him.” Bush’s interest in the institution of the family is omnipresent in her work — the fate of the narrator in “The Kick Inside” ends her relationship with her brother and potential motherhood, “Wuthering Heights” is a couple’s reunion, and the second half of Never for Ever is a meditation on the limits of family under the stress of social collapse. The family is the central unit of Bush’s mythology, the central cell from which life and art spring. One could read this as an extension of Bush’s Catholic upbringing, as it aligns with the traditionalist Catholic positioning of the family as the fundamental unit of civilization. Certainly this favorability towards the family extends from Bush’s well-adjusted family life. A staple of her early interviews is her enthusiasm and gratefulness towards her family, especially her father and brothers, the latter of whom are frequently involved in her music (especially Paddy, whose role in this song we’ll cover later). Given this background, a worldview that positions family as its wellspring is hardly a surprise from Bush.
Yet “All We Ever Look For” is far from a Humanae Vitae-esque of family’s primacy. The chorus (and brief insert that serves as a cursory pre-chorus) raises the question of family’s shortcomings: “all they ever want for you/are the things they didn’t do.” It weighs family’s position at the forefront of life at the ways in which that can fuck someone up. One generation lives vicariously through the next. They lost their childhood, and their attempt to impose one on their kids was detrimental to their own development. Bush is sympathetic enough to not frame the problem quite that way, preferring to frame the struggles of the two generations as intertwined. The two groups are fellow travelers, not combatants. The details of the battle may be hazy, but “All We Ever Look For” has empathy for all levels of family.
Bush doesn’t explicitly refer to specific generations so much as a generalized sense of the hereditary, but there are context clues sprinkled throughout the song. The second verse provides a particularly useful one in “the whims that we’re weeping for/our parents would be beaten for.” There are two kinds of desire on display here: one that is close enough to be agonizingly realized, and another that’s buried under mountains of repression. One can safely assume that Bush is referring to her own generation, the Baby Boomers, and that of her parents, the Silent Generation. We could go on at length about the consumptive tendencies of Boomers — recently there’s been an exhausting controversy over whether the online slang “OK, boomer,” a phrase quietly mocking Boomers, should be phased out of existence. The Boomers are the generation of hippies, psychedelia, and the Vietnam War. They’re the dominant generational group in our era, the closest to an “epochal” generation. And their markers are largely about desire and success — achieving one’s goals through the hedonism of enterprise. By comparison, the Silent Generation (as implied by its nomenclature) is subdued. It’s the era of people who grew up during World War II, the most devastating military conflict in human history. As such the Silent Generation consists of classical RAF types, the stiff upper lip military conquerors biting back years of trauma and suppressed violence. Bush is dealing with a generation who had a different struggle, an internal one where certain desires are within reach but difficult to navigate. If Bush has an M.O., it’s to integrate her British cultural traditions into contemporary music.
This is where the title comes in: the chorus of “All We Ever Look For” is a search for meaning in a world defined by possibility. In the first chorus, Bush lists what the previous generation has looked for: “a little clue,” “the truth,” and “a little bit of you,” fairly abstract expressions of a need for grounding. Meanwhile, the second and third choruses tell the listener what “we,” Bush’s generation, desires: “another womb,” “our own tomb,” “a drug,” and (my favorite) “a great big hug” among others. Sex, psychological gratification, Freudian solace, spiritual awakening, and getting high as fuck are all options. Bush makes her choruses into anaphoric lists of things to look for — yet every avenue is a dead end. The first chorus ends with “but they never did get,” while the second and third conclude on “but we never do score.” The difference is clear: one generation fails to attain things they could barely conceptualize, while the other sees the entire world and discovers that their search is futile. Burying one’s head in pleasures fails as wish fulfilment: one learns all about the world, but still arrives at a dead end.
And this world is massively dense. Let’s look at the cover art of Never for Ever, which seems tailor-made for this song. A contender for Bush’s best album cover ever, it is a penciled illustration by artist Nick Price which depicts a barefooted Bush standing on a hill and wearing a billowing dress that is endowed with patterns of clouds (evocative of Price’s work on the Tour of Life’s promotional poster). The billow of Bush’s dress unleashes a spiraling flood of monsters and fay creatures, from bats to doves to swans to the tenuously unnamable. The album’s cover art perfectly executes what a great cover does: suggests the epoch of an album without expressing it too literally. The sexual positioning of Bush is neither exploitative nor gross: she’s barefooted, has a facial expression that can be described as “longing,” and has a flood of monsters pouring from her nether regions. She’s perfectly in control, gazing at the viewer as if to say “I am quite literally Pandora’s box and I’m okay with this.” With the unleashing of strange wonders comes a great deal of fear and apprehension, but Bush is willing to be a medium.
Kate Bush is equally willing to find new musical ways of being a medium. “All We Ever Look For” is one of Bush’s first songs to be extensively constructed using a CMI Fairlight. For those unfamiliar with the machine, it’s an early sampler and synthesizer. Its user can use preprogrammed sounds or record their own sounds into the machine and play them on the Fairlight as a melody. For example, if you recorded yourself breaking a wine bottle, you could then play that sound as a series of notes. It’s the one situation where you can open a bottle of Château Latour in C major. In “All We Ever Look For,” the Fairlight is used to build the song’s hook: a sampled line of whistling. According to the website Reverb Machine’s phenomenal article on Kate Bush and synthesizers, the whistle sample comes from the Fairlight’s sound library, which suggests that Bush was still getting accustomed to the instrument after being introduced to it by Peter Gabriel and leaning into its databanks. The sample is layered with accompaniment by piano and a Yamaha CS-80 synth, so it’s distinctive while supported by instruments Bush is familiar with.
There’s an odd comfort to the Fairlight. It shows that anything can be music. If a sound can be recorded, it can plugged into the Fairlight and played as a note. It gives new dimensions to “Symphony in Blue,” where Bush envisioned herself “on the piano, as a melody” (it raises the question of if “Symphony in Blue” is better suited to Never for Ever than to Lionheart). All the sounds and temptations of the world can be translated into song. Bush’s world of desire and chances can only be accessed via music.
This is realized quite literally in the song’s utterly bizarre bridge. The song’s melody line is mixed to the background, while a pair of feet walk down a hall and open some doors. The doors play a mix of different sounds, with the first opening to a sample of Sanskrit-singing worshippers proclaiming the Maha Mantra, the next offering some chirpy bird song, and the final opening to thunderous applause. The singer closes all three doors. It’s a strange detour, if quite literal-minded — the three samples can be read as instantiations of the chorus’ searches. Yet the incarnations of Bush’s ideas are all onstage and capable of being represented by sound. The Fairlight CMI has made Bush’s music sound like her writing: a menagerie of strange and magical ideas animating the universe.
The choice to close all these doors is also significant. Particularly interesting is Bush’s choice to avoid prayer, in the form of Hare Krishna. There’s no consistent incarnation of God in Bush’s work — Bush’s god is an offstage demiurge, present and conniving but impossible to reach. Bush is certainly welcoming to faith. Like me, she’s a recovering Catholic who never quite got over search for God. But God is such a huge, alienating idea that some of us feel like we’re doomed to be separated from him forever. And some run, like Bush does in “All We Ever Look For.” Someday she’ll confront God and hold him to account for his cosmic negligence. For now, the search is more important than the results. She can’t stick around for them just yet. She has to do some more searching before she can have that battle.
This lack of concrete answers is fruitful for the song’s compelling ambiguity. The Fairlight is set against antiquated instruments, such as Paddy Bush’s koto and Morris Pert’s timpani. The result is a song that is both modern yet oddly Renaissance in its leanings, both forward-looking and faintly Orientalist. There’s no single way forward, merely a host of paths. Perhaps Bush will choose all of them, but she may equally well follow none. Family is helpful to her, but Bush will walk her greatest paths with other players. Wherever Bush is going, it’s a fundamentally different territory than the songs we’ve explored so far. When Kate Bush gives God as much attention as she gives her elders, there will be a whole new set of desires to accompany it.
Recorded in spring of 1980 at Abbey Road. Released as a Never for Ever track on 7 September 1980. Never played live or on television. Personnel: Kate Bush — vocals, piano, Yamaha CS-80, production. Jon Kelly — production. Paddy Bush — koto, backing vocals. Alan Murphy & Brian Bath — acoustic guitars. Duncan Mackay — Fairlight CMI. Morris Pert — timpani. Preston Heyman, Gary Hurst, & Andrew Bryant — backing vocals. Picture: Hannah, Paddy, Kate, and John Carder Bush (Chris Moorhouse).