Album released this week in… 1989: Kate Bush – The Sensual World
SERENE, nymph-like beauty, the vocal chords of the deadliest siren and prodigal music talent (some of The Kick Inside was written when Kate was just thirteen), it’s easy to wonder how Kate Bush is a real person. Such is her magic, she even managed to dance past the awkward teenage phase. When her early demos were hauled up from the annals of time they were hailed as genius; I’d rather skate naked across the Thames than have my heartbreak poems from 2006 unearthed. In the demos, Kate’s lyrics are profound and mature, her young voice weaving in and out of the delicate piano melodies – sweet, tender and unmistakably Kate. Even the crudeness and age of the demos gives them a rustic magic, like they were dug out of the Secret Garden. Her first single, “Wuthering Heights” (1978) is sung from the point of view of a spectral Cathy. Bush’s banshee-like voice almost breaks the barrier between the spiritual world and the world of the living.
Had Bush continued with wistful piano melodies of her demos for the duration of her career, she may have been the one hit wonder critics feared she’d be. But she’s more than a pretty face with an unusual voice – she’s a pioneer. If she’s experimental, she does it expertly, never coming across as juvenile or misguided; everything fits into her musical vocabulary. If I ever come across a “100 Artists to Listen to Before You Die” list and Bush isn’t on it, I usually shriek “Misogyny! Misogyny most foul!” and toss it through a window.
The Sensual World is Bush at her experimental best. In 1989, Bush had five studio albums and a greatest hits record under her belt. She’d been gradually moving away from the sweeping orchestral arrangements and girlish, innocent vocals, into a territory characterised by a strong Celtic influence, studio magic and more worldly sounds.
In the album Kate – now thirty-one – is not playing the doomed, girlish romantic heroine, sweetly lamenting her misfortune to gently trickling keys a la “Wuthering Heights” or “The Kick Inside”. In the title track she is Molly Bloom in the closing soliloquy of “Ulysses”, discovering her sexuality. “Mmh, yes,” is the recurring vocal motif, Kate’s now richer voice used for a decidedly raunchier purpose. Paying homage to her Irish roots, the fiddle and uilleann pipes dance together while her voice flows like calm, gently bubbling and a dreamy chorus hums in the background. The lyrics are subtlety erotic – “I could wear the sunset” -there’s no slappin’ hoez here. Marrying the primal urge of sex with the natural world denotes true sensuality. No, “Anaconda” is not an example of that.
With a rapid drum beat we are taken out into “Love and Anger”, a Gaelic jig modernised by a distorted electric guitar. The valiha tinkles in the verses, as Kate sings, restrained and softly, about keeping emotions bottled up, leading up to the cathartic release of vocal energy in the chorus. The song fades out as she hums rhythmically to a choral background, funky bassline and wailing guitar. It’s a song for jubilant, unchained, behind-closed-doors dancing.
“Heads We’re Dancing” is a song that is literally about dancing. With Hitler. And not realising. It’s the most “eighties” song on the album, with its rapid, computer-like beeping synth, Mick Karn’s trademark fretless bass and panning that sounds like something’s (a head?) is bouncing across the ground in front of you. What begins as a funky dance number gives way to some pretty ominous-sounding strings that creep out from among the electric sounds. What results is a battle for the limelight between orchestral and modern music. Far from sounding muddied, it simply highlights the internal confusion Kate is singing about. Accidentally fancying Hitler, I guess.
Dancing with Hitler by mistake is obviously a female issue we can all relate to. Kate said of the album “I just felt that I was exploring my female energy more musically… In the past I wanted to emulate the kind of power that I heard in male music.” As an album that evokes images of the natural world, motherhood springs to mind. “This Woman’s Work”, a simple piano-focused song in which Kate’s voice is positively haunting, is a reflection on giving birth from the point of view of the helpless father in the waiting room. “Reaching Out, about a child trying to connect with their mother, features ascending strings that musically emulate a growing plant – and showcases Kate’s vocals at their most soaring. “The Fog”, reflecting on learning to swim, perfectly captures the dual terror and serenity of the water, with more dark strings and a distinctly oriental feel. Her father’s words “Just put your feet down, child”, though seemingly ordinary, are elevated to otherworldly status in this lush arrangement and Bush’s enchanting vocals.
But there’s no better example of female musical energy than Kate’s collaboration with the Bulgarian folk vocalists, Trio Bulhgarka . Any artist who isn’t Kate Bush might not know what to do with the Trio Bulhgarka. Their voice may have paled against the guttural harmonies. Bush and Trio Bulhgarka are perfect ethnic fusion, their voices and Bulgarian singing intermingling with classic rock instruments and modern sounds of the eighties, without losing their naturalistic and distinctly eastern-European sound. They provide background vocals behind the synth and computer sounds of “Deeper Understanding”, a song about loneliness and reliance on a computer. They sing mournfully (still sounding oddly uplifting) in the heartbreaking “Never Be Mine.”
Due to the language barrier their communication was purely musical and “emotional”. It all sounds a bit arty farty (in a way that we can definitely forgive Kate Bush for) until you hear “Rocket’s Tail.” What starts as Kate singing a capella about how she wishes she could be a rocket, with the Trio Bulgarka’s rising and falling harmonies and underlying drone notes, literally takes off, rocket-style, with David Gilmour’s towering guitar ending in a cosmic screech that peters out into the distance like a screaming firework. The Trio’s vocals climb to exhilarating heights. It’s a true showcase of female vocal energy.
“Stepping out of the page into the sensual world”. Kate’s takes us into the real world, but it’s no less magical. Take the album country rambling with you. All of nature seems hyper real. No drugs needed.
Editor’s Note: Yeah, we know The Sensual World was released a little earlier, but hey, it’s Kate Bush!