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Not even the concept of retrospect is immune to Kate Bush’s charms. Her new album, Director’s Cut (Fish People), is a second stab at songs from two post-peak albums in her oeuvre, 1989’s The Sensual World and 1993’s The Red Shoes. Much of it is newly recorded and all of it has a lovely cohesion of sound, and so it feels OK to refer to it as her first new album in six years . . . and yet its source material is of drinking age in her homeland of England. That’s just strange enough to feel surreal, even though revising her work before our eyes is something she has done a few times; most notably, her compilation The Whole Story featured a re-recorded version of her biggest hit, “Wuthering Heights.”
Bush’s return to form here, though, recalls her initial artistic blossoming. Beginning with the greatest negotiation of her artistry and pop savvy, 1985’s Hounds of Love, every Bush album has had a thematic, often narrative concept tied to it. That was less the case with her breakout, 1980’s Never for Ever, and its follow-up, her 1982 masterpiece, The Dreaming. Both were about several things, but none more than a young woman taking hold of her career and producing the hell out of the way she communicates with the world. The process was the concept, and that was enough.
And so it is on Director’s Cut, a very conscious revisiting of old material that wears its m.o. on its sleeve (literally—the title says it all). Bush packages the collector’s edition of the album with the two records she’s picking through, making it easy to compare the old with the rearranged, resung, and, in a few cases, entirely revamped. This woman is showing off her work.
She’s also providing a service, at last doing justice to songs on overlooked and inconsistent entries in her discography. Though there is a faction of her fanbase that swears by The Sensual World (present company excluded), few would deny the fact that it sounds laden in late-’80s smog. A clean-up is well in order. The Red Shoes had worse execution, as Bush wrapped her grieving for her mother and guitarist Alan Murphy (among her losses around its time of release) in a silly song-story loosely based on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 film of the same name. On Director’s Cut, her gravitas has new weight—Shoes’ “Moments of Pleasure” once skipped merrily but now moves tentatively along with her hands on the piano. She sounds so rich with ache that she doesn’t need the original’s chorus (“Just being alive/It can really hurt/These moments given/Are a gift from time!”). She does more showing than telling and, in the process, reveals “Moments” as one of her finest compositions. A similar reading proves less effective in the new, dragged-out version of “This Woman’s Work,” in which the original’s howling sadness is replaced by ambient gloom. It has the opposite effect of “Pleasure,” feeling like she has dumbed down her original with too straightforward a reading.
Not that she’s wallowing—life is now “sweet,” where it used to be “sad,” per a line in “And So Is Love.” And hooray to James Joyce’s estate for finally saying, “Mmmm-yes!” to her request to excerpt Ulysses: As a result, “The Sensual World” now sports vastly different lyrics and a new name (“Flower of the Mountain”). But sometimes leaving the words alone makes for the most delicious contrasts of all. The line in “Song of Solomon” that goes, “Don’t want your bullshit/Just want your sexuality” is far bolder coming from a 52-year-old woman than a 35-year-old one. (Alternately, “I was loading a new program I had ordered from a magazine,” from “Deeper Understanding,” sounds far sillier in 2011 than it probably did in 1989.) Similarly, if you ever had a question as to what kind of climax Bush was going for in “Top of the City,” listen to her voice ooze all over the spiffed-up version and wonder no more. It’s amazing how simply resigning can open floodgates of poignancy.
Musically, things certainly sound cleaner, though that’s not always a good thing. “Understanding” has lost its icily programmed glide in favor of stuttering live drums. [In fact, almost all electronic elements of the songs have been replaced by more traditional instrumentation (and not even all of that is safe).] You see what she’s going for: something less “dated,” with less bloat; orchestral sections, too, are wiped away, making this Director’s Cut a far less cinematic-sounding affair. But in Botoxing her sound (just like she seems to have done to her face, per a recent, shocking promo shot), she’s turning her back on her legacy of technological savvy.
Bush’s production has long been as key to her sound as her songwriting and delivery, and the “organic” rearrangements on Director’s Cut sometimes feel safe and out of character. At least she’s still letting weirdness in via her vocals, which are gloriously unhinged. Her voice quivers like a scared fox in “Lily,” blasts punctuating madness in “Solomon,” and moans like a chorus of aristocratic ghosts in “And So Is Love.” Even while wailing Brontë references at 19, she sounded like a crazy old lady, so she achieves the desired timelessness most effectively through her natural resource.
There’s always been a “genius at work” element to Bush’s music, but the work part is particularly palpable on Director’s Cut. Bush doing Bush has resulted in her most navel-gazing album to date, but if anyone has earned the right to pat her own back, it’s the notoriously spotlight-shy Kate. Besides, it’s good business. How does a veteran artist like Kate Bush fashion an album so that it’s relevant to our time? By making it all about herself.