This woman’s most feminine work: Kate Bush’s Sensual World at 30

Could Kate Bush ever eclipse the genius that is Hounds Of Love? 

Well, perhaps not, but she gave it her best shot on The Sensual World, though it took her four years of trying

It’s fair to say that Kate Bush had found her own special spot in the music industry early on. Back when the rest of Britainnia writhed in the throes of punk, a precocious Kent teenager was harbouring images of a mythic Victorian England in which arcane literature was savoured in the privacy of carefully tended gardens. 

Visions of midnight moors and star-crossed lovers danced in her head as she recorded her 1978 debut, Wuthering Heights, a breathlessly bold single that promptly went to No. 1 when Bush was only 19, yet, as with the attendant Kick Inside album, was already showing an astonishing amount of musical prowess.

Her audacious vocal range was exhibited from the fore, as was her songwriting power and art rock aesthetic. She was a beautiful woman who didn’t mind flaunting it, but, unlike the Madonnas and wannabe Madonnas, she refused to sell herself solely upon it.

In that respect she’s closer in spirit to Annie Lennox or Debbie Harry than some two-bit tart from Michigan.

Kate went on to make more albums — Lionheart, Never For Ever, The Dreaming — which got more individual and experimental as she became more involved with every aspect of her musical palette.

By 1985, things couldn’t be better for the Bush. With her Bowie-esque fear of flying and Pet Shoppy reluctance to tour, she outfitted her charmed skin-up world with a home studio, a musical sanctuary where her increasingly elaborate recordings could take shape without outside interference, creating that “Kate Bush sound” that’s been all the rage since, inspiring Björk, Tori Amos, Goldfrapp, Florence + The Machine, Bat For Lashes, and scores more.

That year she reached the apex of her career with the magical masterpiece that was her flawless fifth LP, Hounds Of Love, which proved to all the doubters that she was not just a strange phenomena or wacky weirdo (her records became progressively more toned down on the crazy as the eighties wore on), and that included yours truly. In my first month at college, its luscious lead single Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) became the first Kate Bush piece of product in my record collection.

The album featured the most powerful and intriguing songs of her discography thus far, not to mention the only one to boast four hit singles in her homeland, demonstrating just how incredible her sonic storytelling had become.

Resisting the frenetic pace of a typical major label release schedule, Bush would spend another four years crafting her followup, with only The Whole Story, her misleadingly titled first and only Best Of album to date, a couple of soundtrack contributions and a duet with Peter Gabriel bridging the commercial gap. 

Of course, the problem with releasing such a pivotal album is usually that whatever you do next is criticised and compared. Unfortunately for Kate, from a public perspective, The Sensual World, has slightly slipped beneath the grasp of society and lies underground, waiting for people to unearth it.

This severe underrating is near criminal; Bush once again excels and pushes the limits of perfection to a new level. Though I freely, admit, with this being the first Kate Bush album I bought on its day of release, I was somewhat baffled by its softness, its femininity, its maturity; traits that would would ultimately prove to be its strengths. The Sensual World is the very definition of a slow burner.

Whereas Hounds was half-composed of an ambitious side-long suite and, contrastingly, cuts like Cloudbusting and The Big Sky, which made fabulous singles, the mood on this one is quite subdued and devoid of conceptualisation: lush, densely-textured with much use of ancient instruments (long a specialty of her brother Paddy, who plays on the record), The Sensual World contains, in its author’s own words, ten perfectly-crafted “short stories that are just saying something different in each one.” They range from gorgeously-textured mid-tempo stuff like the aptly-named title cut to Kate’s trademark heart-stroking ballads. 

There are plenty of both, though, to be fair not a lot of anything else. On first listen, I couldn’t hear any obvious singles, other than the one that was already out. But then we when did this remarkable artist pander to any trend or take the easy way out? She found inspiration in the literary world again, scouring the pages of James Joyce’s landmark 1920s novel Ulysses to find Molly Bloom’s closing monologue, in which the character steps from the pages of the book and revels in the real world. Bush was delighted to find that the rhythm and sound of the words fit perfectly with the music she had been working on.

This revelation was frustrated by the intractability of Joyce’s estate, which refused Bush permission to use the words as her lyrics on The Sensual World’s title track and lead single. She was forced to rebuild from the ground-up, writing new passages that captured the same breathless energy as Bloom’s soliloquy*. The finished product mirrored the inspirational text very closely, refurbishing Bloom as a pop goddess anchored around a repetition of the erotically charged cue of ‘mmm-yes!’, which Bush delivers with a quivering intensity. The lyrics detail a panoply of sensual stimuli, from peaches, to mountain flowers, to seed-cake, whilst the syncopated rhythm of her voice rides the irresistible flow of music awash with its distinctive swirl of traditional Irish Uilleann pipes and synthesisers.

From a musical aspect, although nowhere near as immediate and varied as her earlier work, this album lives up to its ancestors, with Bush playing nearly three-quarters of the instruments displayed on this record which would be impressive in itself, even without the stellar execution. 

Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour and Bulgaria’s Trio Bulgarka (three Bulgarian women who contribute soaring, emotive harmonies and lift the cuts they’re involved to another dimension altogether) lend helping hands on several cuts, the most impressive of which is probably Rocket’s Tail. The track starts out as an a cappella number and expands into a full-blown rocker, as the throaty quavering Slavic voices release Bush from her Victorian inhibitions into a state of expressionist frenzy.

Gilmour provides further guitar work on the gradually-building tension of Love And Anger. With its catchy piano refrains, mass-chorale and impassioned vocal, it would become the third 45 extracted from the record in 1990; though its never been a personal favourite, particularly the forced manic laughter of its over-cooked pudding of an ending.

The first truly breathtaking moments come with The Fog, a misty, atmospheric floater which seems to deal with growing up and the love of family. A predominance on violin and cello (plus orchestra) give the cut a sweet, rich texture like an aural painting of the last century using ‘90s technology. It’s utterly exquisite, and Kate’s doctor dad even makes a cameo. 

Reaching Out is the kind of stringed piano ballad she excels at, which again harks back to childhood emotion. Heads We’re Dancing takes a step back to World War II with its evocative, provocative lyrics, as Kate establishes a groove (that’ll be Japan’s fretless fanatic Mick Karn on bass then) which is exotically percussive and electronically-boosted at the same time.

“It turned into this whole idea of a girl being at a dance and this guy coming up, cocky and charming, and she dances with him. Then a couple of days later she sees in the paper that it was Hitler. Complete horror: she was that close, perhaps could’ve changed history. Hitler was very attractive to women because he was such a powerful figure, yet such an evil guy.” — Kate talking to the NME, October 1989

If we’re talking vinyl, the second side kicks off with the prescient Deeper Understanding, a quite sinister tale of computer infatuation-then-madness. Such were the scarily prophetic nature of the lyrics it was the obvious choice as a single when Kate revisited several of the songs for her Director’s Cut album in 2011.

Between A Man And A Woman is a dense, multi-layered pulse with an atmosphere of magic and mysticism, and rather silly lyrics. Never Be Mine brings back The Trio to sing out their hearts behind a majestic stomach-clasping ballad of lost love.

Kate’s stanzas are effective too, and she sings certain refrains with such desperation and invigoration the listener can literally sense and empathise with the ache Kate is experiencing when she puts her wounded mind down onto paper.

“That clumsy goodbye kiss could fool me,

But I’m looking back over my shoulder,

At you, happy without me”

This sensitive set bows out with my favourite cut, This Woman’s Work, a spiritually elevating gem with just Kate and her trusty piano (if orchestrated to buggery by the fussy Michael Kamen) pouring out a delicate, melancholy ode that was written for the 1988 movie She’s Having A Baby. The film depicted the trials, tribulations, doubts and joy of a couple’s first child, and nothing captured those mixed emotions more elegantly than this; one of the most emotionally intense songs she’s ever written: “Oh darling just make it go away” is a heartbreaker coming from a young woman experiencing a frightening crisis during the normal event of childbirth, though possibly a bit profound for a John Hughes flick.

Kate‘s knack for the dramatic and heart wrenching, especially in the repetition of the laments when she adds in ”All the things that you needed from me / All the things that you wanted for me.” But is this song taking place at the onset of pregnancy or after delivery with post-partum depression? Is it from the point of view of the mother, second-guessing their decision, or the father, looking back on their relationship and realizing he never gave enough? Either way, Kate’s fragile strength is at its peak here, and it kind of evokes Don’t Give Up, her stirring, stoic duet with Peter Gabriel three years earlier.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXzx–YefD8

I should just add that Maxwell’s unexpected cover of the song during the MTV Unplugged mania of the mid Nineties was perfectly nice, but I find it a little hard to stomach that that’s the best known version of the track, in America at least.

For CD and cassette purchasers, there was a bonus track entitled Walk Straight Down the Middle. It’s no great shakes and was rightly removed when the album was remastered and reissued in 2018.

While it’s far from an instant classic, and certainly less musically diverse than some of its predecessors, The Sensual World is a delicate one. But one that bears repeated listens. It’s an album of relationships, and a rewarding journey, so take your time, as you hop on and experience Kate’s train of emotions in song-form on her most unashamedly feminine work of her incredible career. It’s certainly wildly underrated and most probably by its creator.

I’ve often been intrigued as to what Kate Bush actually makes of this album. It’s certainly true that the irony of The Sensual World is that for such an intimate, ballad-heavy emotional rollercoaster it’s marred by a hard-edged processed “coldness” to the digital mixing, that I think has prevented me from enjoying the album in the same way I can much of her other work.

The 2011 release Director’s Cut saw Kate in full on revisionist mode, with warmer, fuller and more analogue-y sounding revamps of songs from The Sensual World and its 1993 follow-up The Red Shoes. Though instead of subtly remixing the tracks or updating them a’ la David Bowie’s Never Let Me Down, Kate chose to completely restructure, re-sing or re-record several of the inclusions. To me, that indicates an inbuilt dissatisfaction with the source material.

Come 2014, and the rapturous joy of her shock return to the stage for Before The Dawn, the main gripe coming from some quarters was that Kate had seemingly excised any reference to her career existing before Hounds Of Love. And yet, just as there was nothing from her first four albums, there was zilch from The Sensual World either (though Never Be Mine did make it as far as rehearsal and thus, appears on the released album).

In 2018, Bush released remastered versions of all of her albums, which served to clear out some of the sonic murk on The Sensual World, though the late-’80s hum still sits on several of its songs like peach fuzz. Whereas other Bush albums seemed to come from another world entirely, The Sensual World is very much a product of its time, for good and bad. Its earthliness is, in fact, the point. Bush told NME that there was more of herself on this album than ever before.

Acknowledging her artistic obsessiveness, though, she told Radio One’s Roger Scott, “It is just an album, it’s just a part of my life. It’s not my life. And I think it was, you know… making albums was my life and it doesn’t feel like that is any more.” 

Bush’s ordinary, though, still manages to be extraordinary by just about any standard.

Steve Pafford

*On Director’s Cut, Bush was able to record a version of the song with its original lyrics in tact, retitled Flower Of The Mountain after at last securing the Joyce estate’s permission. I’d argue, though, that the original (which is to say revised) version, The Sensual World, is more ingenious for managing to reference Molly without copying her and applying a postmodern interpretation of how the character would react to the physical world when “stepping off of the page.” Bush’s refrain is an ecstatic, breathy “Yes!” which Joyce described as “the female word.” She exhales it 17 times as the song saunters along.

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