Responding to a question about crossing the dreaded age threshold of 30, Kate Bush replied, Some said in your teens you get the physical puberty and between 28 and 32, mental puberty. Lets face it, youve got to start growing up when youre 30. It does make you feel differently Over the course of her career, Bush had grown increasingly personal with her material. With 1989s The Sensual World, we are met with a more confident, secure, and adult Kate Bush. Though she has always exhibited mature themes in her music, on The Sensual World, she not only expands upon earlier themes like love and loss, but the approach she takes on topics like sex is also demonstrative of a more personal and intimate Bush. Coupled with smoother production and a broad palette of musical flavors that includes traditional Irish instruments, elegant string arrangements, and the Bulgarian folk trio, Trio Bulgarka, The Sensual World amplifies Bushs penchant for writing delicately complex material while maintaining her progressive pop edge. Turning 30 may not have altered the artists perspective so much as focused it.
The entire album is informed and inspired by James Joyces novel Ulysses, with the title track originally meant to be the character Molly Blooms final monologue detailing her thoughts on sex and sensuality put to music. I originally heard the piece read by Siobhan McKenna years ago and we had this piece of music in the studio already, so it came together really quickly. Unfortunately, Bush was not granted permission by the Joyce estate to do the song as she had originally intended. Because I couldnt get permission it gradually turned into songs about Molly Bloom the character stepping out of the book into the real world and the impressions of sensuality; rather than being in this two-dimensional world, shes free, let loose to touch things, feel the ground under her feet, the sunsets, just how incredibly sensual a world it is.
Opening the album with the celebratory ringing of bells, the title track and first single released in the UK presented an eager British audience with a more grown-up woman than the one who left them last with Hounds of Love. Barely a moment into the song, Bushs angelic ghost-like whisper caresses the instrumentation, easing your arrival into her realm. Not being given permission to use parts of Joyces novel in her song, Bush was forced to rework the piece. It transformed the song. Obviously, the words had to change, but also the musical sections were completely different. By them being uncooperative, it made the track better in many ways, but it was very difficult to keep the rhythmic sense of the words. In April 2011, after finally receiving permission from the Joyce estate, Bush re-conceived The Sensual World complete with Molly Blooms soliloquy, re-titling the song Flower on the Mountain and releasing it on The Directors Cut. The singles B-side, Walk Straight Down the Middle, was added to the compact disc and cassette releases as a bonus track.
It seemed that sometime around the making of The Sensual World, Bushs label, EMI (and in particular, its US branch, EMI America), somehow forgot to renew her contract for US distribution. In doing so, the US market missed out on the albums first and second singles. With this seeming lapse in judgment by the label, Bush jumped over to Columbia Records for the US market. Her debut single for the label was the albums third and final single, Love and Anger. Written over the course of 18 months, Bush described the song as one of the most difficult songs to put together despite it being one of the first written for the album. Featuring blistering guitar work from her mentor, Pink Floyds David Gilmour, Love and Anger hit #1 on Billboards Modern Rock chart, becoming her only single to top any US chart.
Love has always formed Bushs artistry. In many ways, nearly every song Ive ever written is a love song, she said when discussing her philosophy. However, just because love is a common theme in her songs, it doesn’t mean its presence is always so black and white. Never Be Mine is often written off as a song about unrequited love; however, Bush herself describes it as the dream you want, not the real thing. Between a Man and a Woman actually found its origin in a line from The Godfather when Brandos character says, Dont interfere, its between a man and a woman. Heads Were Dancing spins a story of a young woman captivated by a charming, elegant man only to find out a few days later, upon seeing his image in the paper, that the man was none other than Adolf Hitler.
The entire album, though, is not all about love, sex, and/or sensuality. Songs like The Fog and Reaching Out revolve around children growing up and experiencing the adult world, with Bushs own father speaking some of the lines. Rockets Tail (for Rocket) is simply a collection of images, originally inspired by Bushs cat, Rocket, but with the end result having little to do with her beloved pet. Referencing the old-school modem connection noted by the lyric I pick up the phone and go, execute, Deeper Understanding reveals a somewhat prophetic Bush speaking of the isolation found in living life through a computer after being seemingly betrayed by humanity. (As people grow colder/I turn to my computer.) That a critic revisiting this album a few years back criticized this song by asking, Whats wrong with spending evenings on a computer, anyway? demonstrates that her fears may well be true. Revisiting this song on 2011s The Directors Cut is simply apropos.
Bush characterized The Sensual World as containing the most positive female energy in her work to date. Relating Hounds of Love to The Sensual World, Bush stated, It was important for me to get across the sense of power in the songs that Id associated with male energy and music. But I didnt feel that this time, and I was very much wanting to express myself as a woman in my music rather than as a woman wanting to sound as powerful as a man. The albums title track certainly embraces that sentiment, but nowhere is this attitude more apparent than the albums original closing track, This Womans Work.
The second single released off The Sensual World, This Womans Work was originally written for the John Hughes film Shes Having a Baby. During the films dramatic climax, complications arise during childbirth that endanger the lives of both the mother and child. As the father sits helpless and alone in the waiting room, Bushs music fills the air. Thats the sequence I have to write the song about, and its really very moving its exploring his sadness and guilt, suddenly its the point where he has to grow up. Despite the happy ending in the film, with lines such as I stand outside this womans work and Now starts the craft of the father coupled with lyrics wrenching in guilt and loss, I have always interpreted the song as if the mother had died. Leaving the man alone to not only grow up and become a father, but to do the womans work of raising a child on his own, made the song all the more powerful to me. One of Bushs most beautiful songs, she re-recorded this song as well for The Directors Cut, reducing it to simply her voice and a piano.
The Sensual World demonstrated a marked growth in both Bushs lyrical and structural composition. She not only surpassed the bar she had set with Hounds of Love, but also managed to come full circle with her art, returning to her literary connections while evolving her sexual identity from provocatively sexual to evocatively sensual.