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Monday, March 19, 2012

Unfinished Business: Kate Bush, Director's Cut

I should begin with a disclaimer: I am a massive Kate Bush fan. While I am a fan of all the subjects of these blogs, my love of Kate goes deeper, has been longer and by far stronger than any other. That does not mean I can't be objective and critical of her work, just that I can't bear it if anybody else is! You see, she belongs to me in a special way that you will only understand if you too have total adoration for an artist. I'm happy to share her, in fact I take delight if others hear her and enjoy the experience, but fundamentally my relationship with Kate is a private one, shared with a very few intimates (yes, you Amanda). Today I give you a peak inside this most sacred, sensual world, so lace up your red shoes and let's take a look at this woman's work.

For the last two decades being a Kate Bush fan has mainly been an exercise in nostalgia. We waited twelve years for 2005's Aerial, an extraordinary double album that rewarded our patience by revealing a new Kate. Her voice had deepened and gained a rich resonance, her songwriting had evolved and become less restricted by the rigours of a traditional pop song and her arrangements and production had become more open and confident. The waiting melted away and when listening to Aerial it felt like Kate had spent her time away wisely. After this rush of excitement, we began to wait again, not expecting an early release, but sated for now. Six years passed, a mere tremor in the time continuum for Kate, and we had word of a new album, but it was not what anyone had expected.

On Director's Cut Kate would revisit tracks from her albums The Sensual World and The Red Shoes, creating new versions using the best of the original musical performances and re-recording the rest. This was astonishing to Kate followers for a number of reasons. She is famously reticent about her old material, with only one, contractually obliged, compilation album to date. Kate often deflects questions about her early material by saying she never listens to it. So what was driving her to recreate her old songs and why only from these two albums and why now? So many questions!

Kate's answer was that although she was happy with these albums at the time, or she would not have released them, she now felt she could do more justice to some of the songs with what she had learnt while making Aerial. It's not at all unusual for an artist to look back at their previous work and express unhappiness with the results and it was clear that Kate felt she had unfinished business with these two albums that was preventing her from being able to move on freely with new material.

The Sensual World had to follow Kate's commercial and critical highpoint, Hounds Of Love, meaning expectations were stratospherically high. Nothing on a Kate Bush album is there as filler. You sense each track is a kind of experiment in song, and like all experiments, some are successful, others less so, but the results are always interesting. On The Sensual World there is a sense that some of the tracks were swamped by Kate's experimentation, with just one or two layers of sound too many, or a lyric or theme not quite fully realised. This album contains some of my most favourite Kate songs, but I can acknowledge it doesn't quite gel in the way its predecessor did.

The Red Shoes was made at a time when Kate's personal life was less than perfect. Suffice it to say that the album feels like it was made under pressure, with an unusual reliance on guest artists like Prince and Eric Clapton to supply the thrills rather than Kate's own genius. The expectation was set that this would be the soundtrack to a live tour, her first since 1979, and it may be Kate felt she had something to prove commercially at that time. The tour didn't materialise and the short film she made to accompany the album instead, while charming and very watchable, was thought a disappointment by many, Kate included. After 17 years of solid work Kate had hit a wall. It was time for a well earned rest and for her to focus on her personal life.

So we can intuit reasons for Kate wanting to revisit songs from these two albums, but to do so was not without risk. Indeed some fans reacted with hostility to the idea that these tracks could be improved; she sensibly pointed out that the originals would still exist. Director's Cut reportedly took longer and was more difficult than Kate expected, not least because the key on most of the songs had to be lowered to accommodate her deeper voice. She was emphatic that this was a new album, to be heard and judged on its own merits, but inevitably fans will compare and contrast the old and new. So was the effort worth it? Was Kate able to improve on her earlier work? Here are my views on whether the tracks benefit from Kate's director's cut.

Flower Of The Mountain (Previously Titled The Sensual World)

When making The Sensual World Kate had wanted to set the Molly Bloom soliloquy from Ulysses to music, but was denied permission to use the text. When she tried again for Director's Cut she was successful, so she was finally able to realise her original vision for this track. Kate inhabits Molly Bloom, she is earthy and sexy and, appropriately, sensual. It is exciting to hear the track as Kate intended, but in a way I'm glad she had to invent her own version initially, as The Sensual World is in effect a separate song, exploring the experience of a character coming to life from the page, rather than a dramatic reading.

Verdict: honours are even, both versions offer something unique.

Song Of Solomon

Based on the Bible's love poem, this beautifully frank lyric about relationships is set against a languid musical backdrop. My favourite Kate vocal was on the original version, so this had a lot to live up to. The new version is warmer, benefiting from Kate's preferred analogue production and the sparser arrangement lets more air into the song.

Verdict: the new version has a slight edge on the original.


An invocation of angels to protect you, Lily is a storming song of self empowerment. The new version does not alter the structure much from the original, but again the arrangement is less layered and the vocals are more central. To hear Kate unleash at the climax of the track, ably supported by Mica Paris, is truly magical.

Verdict: the director's cut wins.

Deeper Understanding

That Kate originally released this song about computer obsession in 1989, pre-broadband, pre-Facebook, shows what a visionary artist she is. The original version uses the Bulgarian folk artists Trio Bulgarka to create an ethereal theme for this virtual world. On the new version, Kate's son Bertie has his voice contorted by programming to create the voice of the computer. The song's structure is also loosened, with an extended breakdown bringing in some jazzy motifs.

Verdict: there is merit in both versions, but the director's cut fulfils Kate's dystopian vision.

The Red Shoes

A take on the fairytale and an homage to the Powell/Pressburger movie, this lively romp is looser and stripped back in the new version, with great eccentric vocal flourishes. "Whoop Whoop!"

Verdict: love the live feel and fun energy of the new version.

This Woman's Work

The first of two tracks that have been completely reworked by Kate, this is one of her classic songs and one of the few that is regularly covered by other artists. Here she reclaims it completely, by creating a slowed down, icily delicate, barely there song structure on which Kate delivers an achingly gorgeous vocal performance.

Verdict: though the original is faultless, the new version is easily its equal.

Moments Of Pleasure

Apparently Kate is surprised people think this is a sad song, as that's not what she intended. Listening to this it's hard to imagine why she's so confused, as it is hard not to cry when memories of loved ones are so caringly invoked, even if they're not yours! Anybody who has lost somebody special will identify with this amazing song. The original was recorded around the time Kate lost her mum and the emotion is raw. The new version feels like grief that has had the benefit of time and has become part of you. One of Kate's most incredible achievements.

Verdict: again, a Kate classic given an equally classic makeover.

Never Be Mine

"I look at you and see my life that might have been..." This tale of unrequited love is one of my favourite Kate songs, it is truly heartbreaking in the original, but the raw, honest vocal Kate delivers on the new version won me over. I also love the new arrangement and the more open song structure.

Verdict: fully requited love for the director's cut.

Top Of The City

A tale of obsessive love, this is one of Kate's most dramatic songs. I'm struggling on this one to see what has really changed from the original. It does benefit from a warmer analogue sound and Kate's new vocal is fully on point, but it does not add much overall.

Verdict: the original may have it, as it possesses more energy than the new version.

And So Is Love

Again, hard to see what has changed in this new version of a classic Kate break-up song. The one major change, with the lyric moving from "Life is sad and so is love" to "Life is sweet.." does not work for me. I understand fully why Kate has done it, her life now is sweet compared to when she wrote the track, but it doesn't fit the song's meaning or vibe. There is rumoured to be a six-minute version of the original and if the new version had restored that, then maybe it would have held more interest.

Verdict: the original wins for me, hands down.

Rubberband Girl

Almost left off the album, this is again an almost total reworking of the original from a poppy tune to a Rolling Stones-esque rock number. It's fun, but I can see why Kate was in two minds, it definitely feels like an out-take rather than a natural fit on the album.

Verdict: hard to compare to the original, more of a fun jam than a remake.

And The Winner Is...

Director's Cut definitely works as an album in its own right and it is fascinating to hear Kate's reworking of her original tracks. It underlines her development as an artist since her break and what is now important to her musically. The maturity of Kate as a vocalist, combined with her confidence in her skills as an arranger and producer shows that she continues to evolve and improve as an artist. If we thought that this wonderful album was Kate's biggest surprise in 2011 we were wrong. Director's Cut obviously did its job in allowing Kate to draw a line under her previous work and move forward, as just a few months later Kate released an album of new material, 50 Words For Snow. But more on that another time...

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. Director's Cut is available now on Kate's own label, Fish People.

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