Back when I had a weekly space of print in my college paper, Florida International University’s “The Beacon,” I had the chance to preview Kate Bush‘s 1993 album, the Red Shoes (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the album on Amazon). I had hoped to dig up that old review to see what my thoughts on the album were nearly 20 years ago now. It might have been interesting to compare my thoughts now on Bush’s re-imagining of several of the album’s tracks on her latest album, Director’s Cut (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl on Amazon), which sees its official North American release today. It seems I no longer even have a computer file of it, much less an actual clipping.
I do recall that I had a lukewarm response to the Red Shoes, as I, like most casual fans of Bush, would always hold all her albums up against 1985’s Hounds of Love (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the nice vinyl reissue on Amazon). But now comes a Bush album that begs a comparison not only with the Red Shoes but also its predecessor, 1989’s the Sensual World (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the album on Amazon), as Director’s Cut is composed of a selection of songs from both albums.
The concept of this new album might seem audacious to some. But, coming from Bush, it should not come as a complete surprise. This is the same artist who re-recorded her vocals for her first hit single, 1978’s “Wuthering Heights,” for its inclusion in her 1987 hits compilation the Whole Story (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the album on Amazon).
Director’s Cut, takes that concept a step beyond, offering a look at a famously reclusive artist with her more popular years behind her. She was once up there in notoriety with Madonna in the early and mid-eighties (think today’s Lady Gaga and Katy Perry as far as recognition goes). But as a very well-read and quirky artist (she toured only once at the start of her 30+ career in support of an album), her appeal tended to the arty, more challenging side of rock, alongside artists like Peter Gabriel, David Bowie and Pink Floyd, whose guitarist, David Gilmour has been credited with discovering her.
Director’s Cut may even seem a bit excessive, characteristic of an OCD-type of artist, but it also reveals an artist still deeply invested in her work. Sometimes this sort of careful attention can produce respectable results. Look at the amount of time Gabriel spends on his music between albums and consistently delivers (except on maybe one occasion). But then it may seem a bit self-indulgent. This re-visioning of older songs in her catalog more closely recalls George Lucas’s efforts to remake the past by adding digital effects to his early Star Wars movies.
But Bush is not as ham-fisted an egomaniac as Lucas. What comes through Director’s Cut is an artist with tender respect for her original songs. Many Bush fans, or fans of the original albums, will be pleased to find the differences she has made are minimal. The soul of all the songs remains intact and sometimes more enhanced, as most of the new versions come across more luscious in general.
I do not normally feel inclined to take a track-by-track approach to my album reviews, but here comes an album that deserves such a close listen. Appropriately enough, you can also choose a deluxe version of the album that includes remastered versions of the original albums (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the deluxe edition on Amazon).
I had not listened to the Red Shoes nor the Sensual World in more than a decade, so I spent some time getting re-acquainted with them ahead of this review. According to Bruce Eder on the All Music Guide website Bush “re-cut all of her vocals and drums, and left virtually everything else unchanged.” That might be too pat a summary for this album, much less Bush’s approach to her intelligent pop music, as the majority of the re-workings cannot be so easily summed up.
Bush has done much more than simply re-record drums and vocals. She has given much more attention to the sound of the songs. The production has a delicate and affectionate touch behind it. On several occasions, the songs have aged well. The passage of time has added a depth to some themes, and Bush indulges in this, sometimes extending the songs with more patience than the original recordings. “Woman’s Work,” has nearly doubled in length and resonates more powerfully in the years that have passed since its original recording back in 1989. “Song of Solomon” also benefits from a more patient development.
The opening lines of “Deeper Understanding” works more powerfully in today’s age of social networking on the Internet than it did over 20 years ago: “As the people here grow colder/I turn to my computer/And spend my evenings with it like a friend.” To top it off, Bush has robotocized the chorus with a warped, more modern auto-tune effect. It’s a witty up-date to a song whose coda she also extends an extra couple of minutes with odd computer effects and a slow jam with drums, bass, harmonica and her own quirky voice. She also directed the video for it:
Sometimes, however, an indulgence in extending the songs works to their detriment. “Moments of Pleasure” spends too much time creeping into existence, leaving behind the romantic, wistful yet grand quality of the original. “The Sensual World,” now renamed “Flower of the Mountain,” featured Bush’s voice working at its peak, fluttering and whispering, doing sexy credit to the original title. The song was originally inspired by the ending of James Joyce’s Ulysses (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the book on Amazon). When Bush was denied permission by Joyce’s estate to use words from the book, back in 1989, she wrote her own lyrics (read more on that here). For Director’s Cut, however, the Joyce family gave her their blessing to use the text. She re-titled the song to reflect the changed lyrics that are now a sort of collaboration with Joyce, as originally envisioned by Bush, and you cannot argue the words of Joyce do take the song to another level. Too bad her voice is not what it used to be in the eighties.
Another song that suffers due to it’s re-interpretation is “Rubberband Girl,” which closes Director’s Cut. The new version sounds a bit uneventful, bouncing along on a reserved acoustic guitar rhythm. The original featured a shameless, over-the-top energy and, again, the voice of Bush that I miss most on this new record.
Though you cannot deny the passage of 20 years time on a singer’s voice, there are moments that her matured voice (she is 52, btw) enhances the music. “Lily” is no longer the dull trudge it used to be. It has a new-found power thanks to Bush screaming and growling up front.
The differences in the other tracks are more subtle. “The Red Shoes” has a more open, expansive sound. Otherwise, it is very similar to the original. “Never be Mine” feels almost as subdued as the original. It might feature a different bass effect. If so, the change is subtle. But even on the Sensual World “Never be Mine” had a weak presence, and on Director’s Cut it again suffers a similar fate.
“Top of the City” sounds very similar to the 1993 version, though it sounds a bit grander in its original form on the Red Shoes. The new version grows a bit too hushed during its quiet moments, getting lost in its softness. Finally, “And So Is Love” is another mellow tune that features a very minimal change. Bush chucks the original’s electronic beat, and her voice once again comes across more energetic on the original version.
The Director’s Cut becomes a sort of mixed bag when you compare it to the originals. Some of the songs have benefited with age and certainly show maturity. However, there are several that seem quite uneventful. But I am sure serious Kate Bush fans will have a more heightened sense of the changes. Plus, the quality of the song craft from Bush certainly stands above much of today’s pop music. How many of today’s popular artists can make a career in music by referencing classic literature like Ulysses and— at the start of her career— Wuthering Heights?