Certain acts are a breeze to write about. Sitting down with pen and a headful of thought is to see the words appear on page almost before they’re written, the fluid patterns intuitive, such understanding of back catalogue sharp, embedded with clarity.
Other artists, and it’s more of a challenge. Too many intangibles. Too much depth, the relationship between listener and individual track a muddled knot of emotion and interaction, daring to be unpicked.
Much has been written about Kate Bush. Books, screeds, PhD theses. The trap, when following in footsteps, not comprised of originality. Rather, it’s the “how” – how to convert abstract notions into something solid. Coherent. Black upon the white…
Her sixth album, The Sensual World was released in 1989. A record bedecked in baroque exposure – but loose with it, leaving ample space for interpretation, for ideas to spiral, to concatenate. A big record – I make it thirty-four different musicians getting in on the act, with names such as Dave Gilmour, Nigel Kennedy and Michael Nyman appearing on the roll call – but also intimate with it, the sonic breadth channelled through aperture; not compressed exactly, but guided away from the pitfalls of mainstream formulation (and this is a mainstream record, selling in staggering numbers. People bought this to listen to as they drove between sales conferences, the soundtrack of motorway junctions and school run car stereos – it doesn’t make too much sense, but then again, the general public’s musical appreciation (or lack there-of) has never been easy to second guess).
There’s an argument to suggest that the internal combustion engine is one of the most socially incohesive inventions we’ve ever come up with, in that its application promotes an insular form of individualism, working against communal good (a sentiment inadvertently espoused in Gary Numan’s ‘Cars’). By extension, the car stereo is a pernicious device; not only does it buttress that sense of isolation from surroundings (“Here in my car, I feel safest of all”), but also – because perception is tuned to what is happening up ahead (the fast lane full of dauphins in tarted-up Coupés driving like a video game) – attention is never fully focused upon what the stereo is playing. And whilst, when it comes to certain records, such degraded attention is undoubtedly a good thing (Kasabian are great driving musak, because you don’t actually have to listen), stick an album such as The Sensual World into the CD player or (trembles) the MP3 device, and its grace will either escape you, or you’ll quickly rear-end the HGV ahead because – from the title track onwards – there are some things far more important than highway minutiae.
And if that last paragraph is something of a non-sequitur, it goes to prove how difficult the subject matter is when it comes to converting ideas into words. Not owing a car, I’m forced to experience this album the old fashioned way; needle upon vinyl, just a little crackle and hiss.
Track one. ‘The Sensual World’. Bells, Molly Bloom – “Then I’d taken the kiss of seedcake back from his mouth.” A chorus of touch, of open eyes; uilleann pipes, the annunciation – “Stepping out – of the page” – on the off-beat. Which is important, yet it’s difficult to describe how; it’s an instinctive song – the uncoupling from cocoon in musical form – but also contradictory. Impenetrable, yet laid open. Modern, yet underpinned by undefined notions of past (it’s followed by ‘Love and Anger’ – also a single, but one full of contemporaneous stylings, which therefore makes it sound dated; an accusation that to be fair sticks to much of the Bush canon, if only because the mid-to-late ‘80’s rode on a ubiquitous slickness of hardware that in retrospect buried much of the nuance it strove to impart).
This period is musically important because it represented a schism between the mainstream and the alternative. Beforehand, genre and chart success were not mutually exclusive – you were just as likely to find a post-punk, new wave or synth-pop track hiding in the top 40 as some mawkish MOR ballad performed by a tone-deaf warbler in too much chiffon. The mid-‘80’s, however, and the coalescence of sound into CD-friendly, corporate gloss accelerated to the point where outsider music was permanently exiled to late-night radio and the more esoteric corners of your local record emporium – a schism best exemplified by the interludes of music criticism in American Psycho, Patrick Bateman appraising Whitney Houston and Huey Lewis and the News LPs with a reverence that rides over and above his inability to appreciate music as sonic empathy.
This makes The Sensual World a difficult proposition because of its natural inclination to transcend the rigidity of vogue whilst sitting firmly rooted in the compact disc lexicon; the album’s themes reject convention, whilst its production can’t help but to embrace it. Not that it sounds like any other record; rather, its physicality drove such a narrative, in the same way that Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’ (never his strongest track) or ‘Games Without Frontiers’ (backing vox: Kate Bush) defined CD-centric inclination despite initially holding territory a little to the side of conventional chart fodder.
The Sensual World even includes that insidious device the “CD Bonus Track,” ‘Walk Straight Down the Middle’ not included in this revisit because interlopers aren’t welcome when it comes to album integrity. “Integrity” being the pivotal expression when discussing the work of Ms Bush; the bone china voice, the lingering phraseology, confessional lyrics that drive at the very heart of self-exposure without once arriving as trite or self-obsessed – she regularly uses literary metaphor as inspiration, but that’s because the emotional truths she espouses are worthy of great literature.
There are moments during the LP when the musicality arrives overcooked (‘Reaching Out’; ‘Deeper Understanding’, the latter one of the tracks with Japan’s Mick Karn and his fretless bass appearing high in the mix). The haunting, a capella chants of ‘Rocket’s Tail’ unravel at the very instant we’re introduced to a Dave Gilmour guitar solo, characteristically pulled from the Dave Gilmour book of cheesy guitar solos – it’s by far the least successful track because it feels weighted-down and unbalanced. Far better are the occasions where instrumentation arrives sparse, framing the unconventionality of the arrangement, thus operating in concert with Bush’s never-there, always-there vocal. ‘The Fog’ rides upon a delicate sumptuousness gifted by the strings. ‘Between a Man and a Woman’ etches detail from its scooped-out percussion. And ‘This Woman’s Work’ – probably the most well-known track on the album, and therefore its most over-used in lesser contexts – is a treeless landscape; tundra as tender, erudite, compelling; “I should be crying, but I just can’t let it show.” It’s a track that never falls prey to sentimentality (or the crassness of gender politics) when it so easily could have, the piano in each verse a thorn as much as petal, and as dénouement – the uncertainly of motif, climaxing mid-expression; “Oh, darling, make it go away. Just make it go away now.”
Writing about Kate Bush is never easy. Too many intangibles. Too much depth. The Sensual World is perhaps not her strongest LP; it suffers from being of its time a little more than Hounds of Love. Isn’t enough of its time as The Red Shoes (and both deserve a revisit). As listeners too, we’re possibly caught up a little in preconception; the cultural notions of what to expect from a Kate Bush record, and therefore what it is that we’re supposed to take away with us (it’s interesting that, for her 2011 Director’s Cut album, she chose only to revisit tracks from this and follow-up The Red Shoes… including a reconstructed title track – renamed ‘Flower of the Mountain’ – featuring (as originally intended) lyrics from Joyce’s Ulysses; it leaves the audience double-guessing the extent to which The Sensual World accomplishes all that it set out to do).
Writing about Kate Bush is never easy – but that doesn’t mean that conclusions hang beyond reach. Composed rather than kooky. Expressive, but with the wherewithal to display its tendrils of emotion without clumsy overtness. It’s beautiful; just promise me one thing – don’t listen to it whilst driving.