Kate Bush Director’s Cut: The Thrill And The Hurting

Posted July 19, 2011 in

It is interesting when the emotional pull of a recent album can still coax you back to listen to it repeatedly months after its release. There were some allegedly “big” releases this spring—which I won’t mention here—that seem to have come and already gone like so much hype. Kate Bush’s recent Director’s Cut is the exception. Imagine my surprise—not to mention delight—several months ago to find that not only was there a new song from Kate Bush forthcoming (“Deeper Understanding”) but also a new album, entitled Director’s Cut. Since “Deeper Understanding” was originally on her 1989 release The Sensual World, I was extremely intrigued to learn that this new release was a reworking of this song plus three other cuts from that album and seven others from 1993’s The Red Shoes. Although there are three tracks that are completely remade, these are not solely re-recordings (like Suzanne Vega is presently doing with her excellent Close-Up series) or remixes of beloved tracks, but more like a film director crafting a more complete version of an already released film. Bush has retained her favorite parts of these tracks and completely re-recorded the drums and vocals so they more reflect her original vision.

This doesn’t mean that these versions definitively ‘replace’ the original versions, as I’ve read in dozens of online reviews and blog posts. These songs simply showcase an artist revisiting things she wasn’t always happy with. In various recent British radio interviews she’s granted, Bush comes across as less a perfectionist and more of a normal human being, reflecting that she did the best she could at the time, but has always wanted to revisit these tracks. The very notion and unfounded speculation of these tracks being replacement versions hit its zenith before fan favorite “Deeper Understanding” had even uttered a single glorious new note to the public. Some fans were outraged by the audacity of Bush doing this, while others, like me, couldn’t wait for it. What elements and parts of the originals were still intact? How would the three completely re-recorded songs sound, when their originals were so well known and so well loved? Bush seemed to realize the importance of exorcising her desire to do this before beginning work on her new album, and she felt that by revisiting these tracks, she had created an entirely new album. She has succeeded beyond imagination in creating a new album that is both beautiful and heartbreaking in turns.

While I will succumb to a digital-only release when I have to, there was really only one version of this new album I desired above the various others: the deluxe CD version, which includes both of the original albums that the re-worked tracks were culled from. Consoling myself with the NPR streaming version until my copy arrived from the UK, I had previously purchased “Deeper Understanding” (a cautionary tale where the narrator eschews human contact for a computer program) from iTunes and admittedly it took about two listens to fully appreciate the differences, not to mention its utter brilliance. The track’s most obvious changes are the running length (about two minutes longer than the original, Bush’s lower register vocals and the part of the song when the computer program comes alive. The original—made with the best technology at the time: layered background vocals through a vocoder—is completely transformed by Bush’s son Albert and his performance as the program, who really now sounds like a singing computer. The background vocals by Trio Bulgarka are still there, but there are also glorious new elements like a sultry harmonica and what sounds like Bush herself imploding like a computer breaking down. It is truly fantastic to behold in it’s new incarnation.

The Sensual World’s title track is based on fictional character Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from James Joyce’s Ulysses. After Bush composed the music, she thought the character’s inner monologue matched her music, but sadly she was refused permission from Joyce’s estate to use the direct text. Bush has described her self-penned lyrics as merely “OK,” but when she approached the estate again (22 years later) for Director’s Cut she was miraculously granted permission. Rechristened “Flower Of The Mountain,” the song still begins with those haunting Uilleann pipes, but is now how Bush originally intended it to be lyrically, with those other beautiful Irish instruments, like the fiddle and whistles all intact. The song’s sensuality remains completely unblemished, which is quite an accomplishment.

What is also amazing is that each of the 11 tracks is given a whole new sonic backdrop, which seems to allow them to fully respire in astounding new ways. Bush states that they found the original Red Shoes’ half inch tape analogue backing masters and she began the recording process by actually un-digitizing the tracks and putting them back onto analogue tape because of its warmth and fuller sound. It is the attention to details like this that make the recordings so rich and detailed. I’ve read that many fans are not particularly fond of The Red Shoes, but I have to completely disagree as this album is definitely a favorite of mine. What is astonishing is how the reinterpretations here elevate some of the tracks to even greater heights. Take “Song of Solomon” and “Lily” for example. Some of their original details were a bit buried, even in their original digital state. Bush, ever the consummate producer, brings out elements that really were there before and accentuates them to the nth degree. The original vocals on “Solomon” were nearly reverential in parts—including a spectacular turn by the Trio Bulgarka—and now they are front and center, and when Bush intones the line “a wop bam boom” which was always present on the original, she really drives the protagonist’s longing home in ways the original only hinted at.

“Lily” is no less dazzling, and as its bridges build to its chorus, Bush practically screams to the angels she’s alluding to. Bush’s willingness to never color within the lines has always been one of her greatest strengths. The Gayatri Mantra, spoken by the late Lily Cornford—who is clearly the inspiration for this song—is still here, but there is a sinister if not baleful quality to the new version that the original lacked. I agree with the online community that longs for an updated video version of this. One of the most pleasant surprises of the Red Shoes songs is the title track itself. The original version is and will remain one of my favorites of that album, but this version is even livelier in parts and the new vocals are simply fantastic, especially the extra male voices, which again feature her son and Jacob Thorn. Certainly the great drumming featured throughout Director’s Cut by the legendary Steve Gadd is one reason for the punchier sound, but the rest of the musicians‘ credits for this track are nearly identical to the original, so clearly Kate the studio priestess has enhanced the track with some great sound effects an amazing vocal performance.

Son Albert and Jacob Thorn also form the background vocals for one of the album’s three remakes on one of her surely best known and beloved songs, “This Woman’s Work.” The complete transformation of this masterpiece is one of the most stunning feats ‘director’ Bush conjures up. What was so potent in its original incarnation was the combination of Bush’s simple keyboards and her intricate vocal—neither of which are missing here, but are presented in a completely new context—and the song sounds even more fragile, highlighted by one of Bush’s most delicate vocal treatments ever. It is simply divine to be bathed in its beauty, especially through good headphones. The fragility of “This Woman’s Work” marries one of her other complete re-workings on the autobiographical “Moments Of Pleasure.” Often mistaken as being written for her late mother Hannah (including by myself, probably because she’s mentioned in it) this melancholic song has replaced its bridges with a whole choir of humming to startling effect. Here, as she does subtly on other songs, Bush also alters and in some cases, removes lyrics.

One of my favorite tracks from The Sensual World is “Never Be Mine,” wherein Kate Bush amalgamates deep heartache and the sense of longing for a departing lover, highlighted again by a lovely background chorale comprised of the wondrous Trio Balgarka. They are still here—albeit in a much more subtle context—and while the song’s new somberness does transform it, it still retains its loveliness. The new version also seems to have removed some of the original’s ‘digital edge’ instrumentation and replaced it with Bush’s own minimalist, canticle-like harmonizing. Also pared down—at least more vocally than musically—is “And So Is Love.” Although Gadd’s drumming is new, the music, especially Eric Clapton’s guest guitar, is nearly identical to the original but what makes its inclusion here vital seems to be the sense of longing found in the new vocals, both lead and background. The new vocal performances are also a highlight of “Top Of The City,” where Bush has removed the extra keyboards and some of the aforementioned ‘digital edge’ of the sound, but not the emotional impact of the melody.

The final track and also the final complete re-recording is one of The Red Shoes’ best songs, the joyous “Rubberband Girl.” This take is entirely different than the preceding 10 tracks and almost sounds like a honky tonk version compared to the original’s exuberant pop sound. It isn’t hard to imagine Mick Jagger singing this and when the synth bass line and harmonica come in they elevate it to a whole other level. I’ve read online that Bush nearly didn’t include it and there has been a lot of fan criticism of its ‘muddy’ sounding vocals, but one suspects this was completely intentional. Besides, the way it makes one completely groove along to it seems to imply it belongs here and makes a brilliant ending to a woman who consistently ends her albums on a high note.

The album is presented in two formats for America: digitally at iTunes and Amazon, then the standard CD release in a case bound book. The artwork for this package is meticulous and beautiful as are the photographs. For my money, nothing beats the imported three disc deluxe CD version, also in a case bound book format. Each re-worked song is interpreted here visually and comparing the new lyrics with the old ones (not to mention the song credits) is truly fascinating. While there has been much speculation that The Sensual World disc found here is not remastered, I would disagree as not only is it pressed on Kate’s new Fish People label (begging one to question why would they use the original Columbia/Sony version for a completely different label years later?) but individually in the UK it is being marketed as ‘remastered’ and perhaps most importantly, it simply sounds better than the original issue I own. The real prize here, however, is that aforementioned analogue half inch tape remastered version of The Red Shoes. The warmth of the recording—truly appreciated with decent headphones on a real stereo system—comes across in ways the original digital version simply can’t match. It is something of a privilege to listen to the whole package in this format. For completists there is also a deluxe two record vinyl edition of Director’s Cut. Bush herself has stated she’s already begun work on her next proper release and while it would be great to wish its appearance sooner rather than later, this album more than tides me over until that joyous day arrives.