3. Kate Bush – ‘Breathing’ (1980)

“Outside
Gets inside
Through her skin
I’ve been out before but this time it’s much safer in

Last night
In the sky
Such a bright light
My radar send me danger
But my instincts tell me to keep breathing”

Written by Kate Bush

Produced by Kate Bush

Taken from the album Never For Ever

Also released on The Whole Story and This Woman’s Work

UK #16

I’ve sat here for a while trying to decide what on earth to say about ‘Breathing’. Here are the basic facts: it was the first single from Kate Bush’s third album Never For Ever, it was a top twenty hit, and it’s about a fetus. Possibly the only hit single about the subject (that includes ‘Teardrop’, which was merely “Massive Attack ft. A Fetus”), this was described by Kate as her best work up to that point, and her “little symphony”. That was most certainly true, and while she would continue to release quality work for decades to come, none of her songs ever managed to outdo this masterpiece.

This fetus isn’t just chillin’ in the womb, waiting to be born, the situation is much more sinister than that. I’m not sure if there’s ever been a definitive answer, but the general consensus is that the baby is either being born into a nuclear war, or being born after the world has ended. The first part of the song focuses on the fight to stay alive, the need to continue breathing no matter what. This is not a tale of lost love or relationship woes, it is a story of survival, which leads to an incredible sense of dramatic tension and suspense. At certain points, Kate’s voice comes screaming from the backing vocals into the forefront, as if desperately trying to hold on to life.

“We’ve lost our chance
We’re the first and last
After the blast
Chips of plutonium are twinkling in every lung”

Following a frenzied repetition of “out, in, out, in”, the vocals fade away, and are replaced by a deadpan male voice reading seemingly straight from a textbook.

“After the flash, a fireball can be seen to rise, sucking up under it the debris, dust and living things around the area of the explosion, and as this ascends, it soons becomes recognisable as the familiar mushroom cloud.”

All the drama and theatrics come to a climax here and explode into a back-and-forth between Kate and a small group of male singers. “What are we going to do?” they sing, as Kate screams “BREATHE!!”, and is eventually able to spit out “God please leave us something to breathe!” – it looks ridiculous on paper but trust me, it sounds incredible within the context of the song. With a cry of “We are all going to die”, ‘Breathing’ comes to an end. Exhausting, cinematic and emotional, after a few seconds of false fade, it closes with a final pair of notes from the bass, a sonic representation of the barren landscape, the loss of life, the uncertain nature of the story and how it never gives us closure. It is Kate Bush’s greatest single-song achievement, a mindbending and engaging musical experience every time. For all of her other genius moments, may they be ‘Running Up That Hill’ or ‘Wuthering Heights’, at the end of the day I wouldn’t dream of calling any other Kate song my absolute favourite.

Music video:

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