A quick mental survey of Kate Bush’s career conjures up memories of eccentric, uncompromising brilliance. From her stunning 1978 debut, The Kick Inside (which included songs she’d written at the age of 15) to 2005’s charming grower Aerial, Bush has forged an amazing body of work, writing uncommonly complicated songs that have brought her uncommon success.
Ah, but think a little harder and you remember that period around the late ’80s/early ’90s when Bush arguably made the only stumble of her career. 1989’s The Sensual World found Bush realizing an inviting blend of her trademark weirdness with the sweeping accessibility of her most popular efforts. Songs like the title track and especially “This Woman’s Work” further cemented her legacy as an artist capable of marrying art and emotion. Wide acceptance in America, though, was hard to come by. The early ’90s, however, brought in the alternative revolution that rewarded artists like Tori Amos with massive record sales, and it seemed like Kate Bush’s time. Whatever you thought of Amos and others like her, whether you thought they were true standard bearers of Bush’s legacy or pretenders to the throne, you believed that the songs from Bush’s next album would sweep across this newly inviting landscape like a conquering art-pop horde.
But it wasn’t to be. 1993’s The Red Shoes sold well enough, but it didn’t seem to establish any new beachheads on American shores. Listening to it now, it’s still hard to pinpoint the problem. The record holds some fine songs, but even those feel like they could have worked just as well as Sensual World b-sides, while a few others just sound small and contained, which is rarely something that could be said about Kate Bush songs. Bush was aiming for a more straightforward live sound than usual, not to mention the fact that she was facing huge emotional upheaval at the time, so it’s no wonder it doesn’t always mesh with her other output. It doesn’t sound like an album on which Bush compromised anything, and recent listens were more rewarding than this listener expected. Maybe American alternative radio just wasn’t as open-minded as we thought it was at the time.
Director’s Cut finds Bush revisiting songs from those two records. All of the lead vocals and drums have been re-recorded, along with various other changes, and the results range from the subtle to radical.
“The Sensual World” was apparently one of the biggest thorns in Bush’s side. When recording the original, she asked James Joyce’s estate for permission to take Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses and set it to music. When they refused, she wrote her own rough paraphrase of the passage, giving us the sweeping, lyrical song that we’ve all become used to. This time around, the Joyce estate granted permission to use Joyce’s words. It’s not like Bush, though, simply sang the new words and spackled them over the existing music. She also expanded the track by over a minute, stripped out the kick drums and layered backing vocals, found a way to make the violin more bittersweet, and renamed it.
To some degree, what’s now known as “Flower of the Mountain” is a litmus test for how Bush fans might respond to the rest of the album. In an interview with the BBC’s John Wilson, Bush is quick to clarify that she doesn’t consider herself as good a writer as Joyce. To these ears, though, the original version found her crafting lyrics that practically danced in time to the song’s rhythm. The cadence of Joyce’s words is a slightly rougher fit, but that’s all forgotten by the time Bush gets to Bloom’s famous — and sensual — flood of the word “yes”. Bush also sings the song in a lower key, giving the song the added weight that comes from a woman with more years behind her.
Throughout Director’s Cut, there’s that push and pull between the comfort of the familiar versions and the challenge of trying to get at the heart of what Bush might be doing this time around. In some cases, such as the new version of “Rubberband Girl” that revels in a lo-fi Rolling Stones groove, she may just be having a good time. On others, she may simply be removing some of the regrettable studio trappings of the late ’80s/early ’90s — in several cases, songs like “The Red Shoes” are stripped down to their basic essence. There are moments, though, when she obviously feels more ambitious. Her prescient “Deeper Understanding”, which saw the dangers of becoming too emotionally reliant on the digital world, is unsettling rather than comforting. In the original, the voice of the computer was warm and welcoming (or as much as it could be in 1989). Now, the computer’s voice (courtesy of Bush’s son Albert) is a jarring hybrid of electronic and human tones that phases in and out of our comfort level. If there’s an uncanny valley for sound, this is it.
Most jarring of all might be Bush’s twenty-plus-years-later take on “This Woman’s Work”. The original, a gorgeous song that builds and builds upon its emotion until it seems like it can barely contain itself, stands as one of Bush’s most iconic songs. Its use in the film She’s Having a Baby made for a scene of unexpected power. It also popped up on a recent season of American Idol, and now seems in danger of being sanded down to greeting card softness alongside Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Maybe Bush felt it was time to take the song back, because there’s no way this new treatment will ever show up on a talent show. Sparse and filled with empty spaces, this new rendition replaces the crescendos of emotion with a fragile and distant weariness.
As much as “Flower of the Mountain” might serve as the album’s warning shot, “This Woman’s Work” might stand as the album’s true test of fire. Bush fans have listened to these songs for over two decades, and in most cases have internalized them in very personal ways. Reconstructing something like “This Woman’s Work”? You might as well re-sequence its DNA. For me, The Sensual World was a sister album for the dark flowering of the Cure’s Disintegration. I’m not sure I listened to much more than those two records in 1989. So as of this writing, there are moments on Director’s Cut that I’m still working to get my head around. The new “This Woman’s Work” invites resistance, but it also has the feel of something that’s biding its time, waiting to lay waste to me when I innocently listen to in some dark emotional moment.
Kate Bush isn’t the first artist to revisit her songs, but she seems one of the few who’s willing to own up to it, or to admit that some of her earlier choices just don’t sit so well now. Just look at Sting, who quietly but methodically stripped familiar moments from remastered Police songs, as if we wouldn’t know. Bush isn’t replacing the familiar versions of the songs — a deluxe version of Director’s Cut contains remastered versions of The Sensual World and The Red Shoes as we remember them. Bush considers Director’s Cut to be its own separate work, and with each revealing listen, that seems more and more to be the case.