Home Music Discography Discography: Kate Bush: The Sensual World

Discography: Kate Bush: The Sensual World

The extra time that Kate Bush devoted to getting every note of Hounds of Love perfect carried over to the long gestation period of that album’s belated follow-up, 1989’s The Sensual World. The artist spent the better part of two years in and out of the studio from 1987 to a few months before its October release crafting its 10 songs, gathering along the way a host of studio musicians from her usual collaborators like Del Palmer to recurring guests such as David Gilmour to ensembles like the Trio Bulgarka to orchestral arrangements by both Michael Kamen and Michael Nyman. Along the way, she even fell into legal troubles when her original lyrics for the opening title track, which incorporated Molly Bloom’s closing soliloquy from James Joyce’s Ulysses and were nixed by the author’s notoriously litigious estate. By the time the album emerged, Bush had lost whatever momentum had been generated over her more prolific early run and the creative and commercial breakthrough of Hounds, which, combined with her increasing remove from any trendy sound, cemented her as an art pop stateswoman over a chart-ruling maven.

Yet if the album, like perhaps all of Bush’s post-1985 work, lives in the shadow of Hounds of Love, The Sensual World is every bit its equal as a musical achievement, and if anything proof positive that the artist’s wunderkind persona was more than capable of maturing without losing its sense of inspiration. Even in rewritten form, the title track is impossible not to peg as a nod to Joyce, but compare “The Sensual World” to “Wuthering Heights” to get an idea of both Bush’s judicious selection of literary sources but also how the difference in perspective reflects her own changing sense of self. The debut single, reflecting the repressed Gothic sexuality of Brontë, is desperate, its exaggerated naïf quality in the twinkling piano and Bush’s girlish, airy vocals undercut by the frantic stirrings of longing. “The Sensual World,” by comparison, is earthier; Irish folk musicians contribute to a dense soundscape of pipes and fiddles that mingle with electric bass and processed drums, and Bush’s vocals are huskier and wearier. Befitting Molly’s closing reverie, the sexuality is still very much present, but its experienced rather than imagined, and when Bush daintily mentions “And how we’d wished to live in the sensual world/ You don’t need words, just one kiss, then another,” the tone is one of wistful recollection of the kind of simplicity and ignorance that “Wuthering Heights” looked forward to, not backward upon.

Those folk touches are the first in a series of left-field arrangement choices that play out like the two distinctive halves of Hounds crossed together in a strange but cohesive kind of synthetic traditionalism. “The Fog” combines whistles and strings with digital recreations of folk instruments that anticipate 16-bit JRPG scores by several years. “Never Be Mine” likewise blends fat double-bass chords amid choral vocals from the Trio Bulgarka and uilleann pipes to create something akin to Fourth World music in the vein of Jon Hassell. Bush had drawn from contemporary jazz before, but much of the album clearly draws from a post-Weather Report, post-Allan Holdsworth fusion, where electronic drums mingle with clipped, trebly, incredibly effects-laden guitar, shot through with gurgling, warm juts of bass. The latter is especially noticeable on “Heads We’re Dancing,” where Mick Karn of new wave artistes Japan supplies fretless basslines that slur and moan underneath a darting guitar riff and swelling Fairlight pulses. Even the most straightforward rock has its idiosyncrasies; Pink Floyd’s Gilmour throws tasteful, full chords of sonic wash to the skittering percussion and antsy piano of “Love and Anger,” his sporadic intrusions peaking Bush’s exorcism of the way that heartbreak draws as much from pleasure and pain.

Amid all of this, Bush contributes some of the strongest songwriting of her career, sidestepping the conceptual unity of the second side of Hounds while nonetheless retaining its ambition. Seemingly disinterested in landing a hit single (though she scored her only no. 1 in America when “Love and Anger” topped the Modern Rock chart), Bush finds strange new avenues to add to her already odd canon. “Deeper Understanding” dedicates amorous verses to computers, as Bush becomes so transfixed with this new horizon that “Nothing else seemed to matter/ I neglected my bodily needs/ I did not eat, I did not sleep.” Abstractly returning to the inspiration of Molly Bloom’s reverie, Bush blends regret with sexual ecstasy, indulging this new affection until others must intervene to snap her from deteriorating from single-minded focus. The consuming nature of romance recurs on “Between a Man and a Woman,” where she becomes so afraid of her obsessions that she notes “Every day and night I pray/ Pray that you will stay away forever.” There are, of course, still moments of whimsy, as when Bush imagines being her cat on “Rocket’s Tail” before punning on his name and equally fantasizing about being a firework soaring into the night and bursting out of existence. For the most part, however, the precocious teenage sensation is long gone, replaced by a woman entering her 30s with a sharply honed vision.

If it’s difficult to imagine The Sensual World as a commercial smash, Bush’s reputation nonetheless propelled it to some impressive heights. It went gold in the United States and platinum in the UK, where it peaked at number two on the charts and finished in the top 50 at the end of the year despite coming out in October. Only the subsequent canonization of records like Hounds and The Dreaming has obscured its greatness, but to return to the album is to realize that Bush only deepened the artistry she showed on those records. Rare indeed is the genius who could craft a song as infectious as “Heads We’re Dancing,” only for repeated listens to reveal that its mixture of flirtatious interest and sudden abrupt fear stems from the fact that it depicts Bush dancing with a dashing stranger only to realize that she was being seduced by Hitler. This is where the second, magisterial phase of Bush’s career begins, one in which the plucky oddity of her early breakouts are wedded to a masterful grasp of literary conceit–and just as important, to the experience of a life actually lived.

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