Kate Bush - Return of the sensual woman
Kate Bush is back with a collection of reworked tracks from two previous albums. Andy Gill welcomes back an eccentric and idiosyncratic talent who explored sexuality and social taboos
Friday 22 April 2011
In a few weeks' time, Kate Bush issues the first album on her own label, Fish People. Entitled Director's Cut, it comprises material which previously appeared on her albums The Sensual World and The Red Shoes – but rather than the usual stopgap hits compilation, the songs have been reworked, and in some cases completely re-recorded. The result has the consistency of mood and tone of a brand-new, self-contained album, bringing into clearer focus the thematic concerns – of love, passion and art – linking the work of this most inventive of British pop musicians.
Right from the start of her career, these have been the main interests driving Kate Bush's music. Who can forget the willowy, teenage Kate, attempting to encapsulate the entire passionate turmoil of Wuthering Heights into four and a half minutes' eccentric warbling? Or, some years later, wanting to make a deal with God in order to experience sexuality from the masculine viewpoint?
Delving further beyond the headline hits, her albums teem with turbulent emotions and sticky business. Her debut album The Kick Inside included songs featuring explicit references to intercourse ("Feel It") and menstruation ("Strange Phenomena"), while the title track itself was based on the traditional "Child Ballad 51", about a girl's incestuous relationship with her brother, who then kills her upon learning of her pregnancy.
Of course, any unsuspecting parent purchasing the album for their daughter would remain blissfully unaware of this; at the time, in the midst of the punk revolution, Kate Bush appeared the very epitome of a nice, middle-class girl, and her music, while odder than the usual bubblegum pop, had none of the sharp edges, urgency or bumptiousness associated with punk. In retrospect, however, she represents a much deeper revolution than that genre's superficial antipathy, something acknowledged by John Lydon, a devoted fan: for in her work can be registered the subtler, but more potent, liberating power of imagination and art.
Compared to her multi-faceted, engrossing explorations of female desire, the pornographic self-abasement of many modern female singers seems more akin to an infant fascinated with its own faeces, dimly aware that there's something shocking about spreading it about, but unaware of the repercussions. How ironic, then, that Bush's deceptive subtlety has enabled her to investigate the kind of subject matter even the most brazen hip-hop queen would baulk at covering, such as paedophiliac desire, incest, cradle-snatching and, in the blackly humorous "Heads We're Dancing", the quandary of a woman who realises she's been dancing with Adolf Hitler.
For virtually her entire career, Bush has operated outside the prevailing trends and transient fashions of the music scene; in her music could be discerned few, if any, obvious musical precedents, the true imprimatur of the unique artist. Accordingly, like Joni Mitchell, she is frequently cited as an influence on successive generations of questing musicians, not all of them female. The lack of recognisable musical influences in her own work is partly due to her enduring preference for drawing inspiration from other media, interpolating literary works by the likes of Barrie, Joyce and Tennyson, and films by such as Kubrick and Powell and Pressburger; and to her fascination with outré intellectual weirdos like Gurdjieff and Wilhelm Reich.
On her new album, the track originally released as "The Sensual World" is titled "Flower of the Mountain", reflecting the significance of its transformation. When she had originally written it, she had used Molly Bloom's orgasmic soliloquy from Ulysses, set to her own music; but denied permission to use it, she was forced to replace the text.
"I then wrote my own lyrics for the song, although I felt that the original idea had been more interesting," she explains. "Well, I'm not James Joyce, am I?" But when she applied again to use the passage on the reworked version, she was granted permission. Even literary gatekeepers, it seems, have come to acknowledge that she is among the first rank of modern artists. And yes, it is more interesting than the previous version, as if the song has finally found its home.
The majority of the 11 tracks rework songs from 1993's The Red Shoes, which at the time seemed something of a let-down compared to its predecessors. The inclusion of heavy-hitter guests like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Nigel Kennedy and Prince seemed to push the music in less interesting, retrograde directions, with ill-suited bouts of routine Prince-funk, and echoes of both "Purple Rain" and "Layla" in the climactic "You're The One". It wasn't entirely bereft of magical moments – most deriving from either the Trio Bulgarka's harmonies or the twinkling valiha lines of Justin Vali – but, as a whole, the album seemed piecemeal and more straightforwardly "rock" than one wished from Kate Bush.
Unsurprisingly, it proved to be her most successful record in America, where nobody ever got poor underestimating the taste of the average listener. There's a much cleaner, simpler, less flamboyant tone to the revised versions, which dovetail beautifully with the excerpts from The Sensual World, breathing new life into both: there's an aura of contentment about the material, which no longer seeks to impress, but has an inner faith in its quiet impact.
For a while, following The Red Shoes, she appeared to have strayed from the cutting-edge of musical developments, and may indeed have exhausted her inspiration. Her concurrent direction of the short film The Line, The Cross & The Curve suggested that she may have worked more in that medium. But, as year followed year with neither music nor movie on the horizon, it seemed as if maybe she had just run out of creative steam, retreating into domestic reclusion to raise a family. This was, it turned out, only half true, but it took a dozen years to find out that Kate Bush could bring to the subject of domestic bliss no less a degree of intense reflection and penetrating insight than she had employed on sex and death.
The double-album Aerial did indeed feature a core of domestic contentment, most impressively in the song "Mrs Bartolozzi", whose protagonist seeks solace for her absent mate in the miscegenate dance of their clothes together in a washing machine. "I watched them going round and round/My blouse wrapping itself round your trousers," she observes, slipping into the infantile – "Slooshy sloshy, slooshy sloshy, get that dirty shirty clean" – and alighting periodically upon the zen koan of the murmured chorus, "washing machine".
It used to be said that some people would have bought an album of Bob Dylan reciting the phone directory; and there were moments on Aerial when it appeared that Kate Bush was doing something comparable, trying to explore the notion of boredom and fulfilment in the least animated manner possible – as when evoking the almost autistic contentment of a mathematician obsessed by pi. But, even then, her innate musicality managed to make her recital of enormous strings of numerals deeply engrossing and involving.
There has always been something of a yin/yang aspect to Bush and her work, particularly in the contrasting tropes of introspection and extroversion between which her art is strung. As she cruises into middle age, it's entirely understandable that she should gaze back upon her former work and seek to reposition it for the future.
But what's more exciting is that she's already at work on fresh material for the follow-up proper to Aerial, which can't come soon enough for my liking. In an era of bland soul divas and over-hyped momentary sensations, we should treasure true inspiration as never before.
The album 'Director's Cut' is released on 16 May on Fish People
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