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Album review

Hearing Kate Bush live in London on ‘Before the Dawn’

Two years ago, the British singer Kate Bush announced she would be appearing at London’s Hammersmith Apollo — her first shows since she retired from live performance in 1979. To say it caused a frenzy among her devotees is a massive understatement. Flights were booked, websites crashed, dates added.

Bush didn’t so much emerge in the late ’70s as much as she crash-landed into its pop landscape. Her dreamy debut single, “Wuthering Heights,” which showcased her bewitching voice, penchant for flight-of-fancy vocal melodies, and willingness to find inspiration in classical culture, was No. 1 on the UK Singles chart for a solid four weeks, and other songs of hers — the chugging “Running Up That Hill,” the spectral Peter Gabriel duet “Don’t Give Up” — garnered modern-rock airplay stateside and led listeners to her albums. Those records, with musical styles ranging from lighthearted jigs to bombastic prog-rock, were dense, meticulous affairs that influenced musicians of all stripes, including the soul singer Maxwell (who covered Bush’s ode to femininity “This Woman’s Work”) and the fleet-tongued Big Boi.

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This isn’t the first time Bush has looked back — in 2011 she released “Director’s Cut,” which reworks songs from two of her mid-period albums. (Among the tweaks: lyrics borrowed from James Joyce.) But the London shows were a titanic event thanks to what had been Bush’s self-imposed retirement from the stage. “Before the Dawn” is a straight-up live recording with no overdubs or add-ons, with audible applause and Bush’s thrilled ad-libs bracketing the show’s opening and closing.

The setlist spans Bush’s career, eschewing the greatest-hits route for a conceptual presentation that allows a track like the grand “King of the Mountain” to puff up into a full-blown rock spectacle, and that shows how Bush is still tweaking even her earliest works. It pivots on two set pieces receiving their first live airing. “The Ninth Wave,” from 1985’s “Hounds of Love,” is a heady suite that traces the psychic journey of someone left adrift in the water with her own thoughts and inner strength; “A Sky Of Honey,” from 2005’s “Aerial,” is shot through with bird calls and heavenly imagery, its meditative textures allowing Bush’s voice, its ever-so-slight cracks revealing her age, to float above them.

The album — which spans three CDs or four 12-inch vinyl records — closes with “Cloudbusting,” a 1985 track paying homage to the bond between the philosopher Wilhelm Reich and his son Peter. Like so much of Bush’s work, it has an urgency that’s palpable even today; when she sings, over slowly advancing strings, “I just know that something good is going to happen,” it’s impossible to not feel the tug of possibility. That feeling of perpetual potential is apparent in even the bleakest of Bush’s years-old songs, which are shot through with clear devotion to constant development of her craft.

ESSENTIAL “King of the Mountain”


Maura Johnston can be reached at maura@maura.com.