After conquering synth-pop on her first attempt with Hounds of Love, Kate Bush took another long break of four years to work out the creative direction her next album should take. Thankfully the British public did not react this time by writing pre-emptive “career over” articles, and also thankfully that wait was worth it for another great piece of work; it’s probably not the absolute masterpieces that her previous two albums can claim, but the transition from mellower baroque pop was achieved with ease, and this album also contains three of the strongest songs of Kate Bush’s entire catalogue.
The first is that of the title track, “The Sensual World”, which is a reference to a sentence from the Penelope chapter of Ulysses, and if you got why that last clause was silly to say you’re cool and smart. It take a more slow and carnal aesthetic to that of the “Jig of Life,” using the uilieann pipes but with a greater emphasis on the synths. Bush’s initial intention was to use the final pages of Molly Bloom’s monologue – a contender for the single most beautiful passage in all of literature – but unfortunately could not get the rights from the Joyce estate. Ulysses is now in the public domain, so in the Director’s Cut Kate Bush got to write the song she intended. But I’m glad that she renamed her remake of that track “Flowers of the Mountain,” judging them as two separate entities, because the passage she writes for “The Sensual World” is great in its own right (and adds a self-deprecating reference using my other main man William Blake)
Because of the Ulysses influence and Celtic sound of the title track, some tend to focus on the Irish influence on this record. However, if anything there is a prominent Eastern sound throughout The Sensual World. This is not just true on the obvious chorales of “Rocket’s Tail” and flutes in “Never Be Mine” (more on those later), but in the picking string sounds of “Love and Anger,” which might be performed on Greek instruments but sound wise has a “Love You To” from Revolver thing going on. It also be found on the next track, “The Fog,” in the way that the violin lines are composed (did anyone else think that first flute note sounded like a flat-line? Just wanted to check, because I think that’s pretty inspired).
“Reaching Out” is an absolutely beautiful piano track with some fantastic use of mandolin, and if it wasn’t for another piano ballad on the album that has become iconic would be a stand out of the album (particularly in how Kate pushes her backing vocals very far behind in the mixing). The next two tracks meanwhile are the most 80’s sounding on the whole record (some people would call that “dated,” but I disagree and one day might write an article about why that term can be a crock of shit). “Heads We’re Dancing” really does sound like it came from a Prince record (which Bush would go on to be on in Diamonds and Pearls) and reveals more clearly a more humorous side of Kate Bush in which a dance track goes full on Godwin by revealing the other partner of the song to literally be Hitler. And then there is “Deeper Understanding,” which has the kind of beautiful percussive synth’s that could have been used on the Drive soundtrack, and in terms late eighties/early nineties songs about computers has aged so much better than other singles by the aforementioned Purple One. So much so it’s pretty much prescient about how the internet would change our attitudes to technology (and that is because Kate Bush is a sentient being).
I’m afraid I don’t have much to say “Between a Man and Woman;” not that it isn’t a good song (those rock organs in the introduction and ethereal choirs are a joy to listen to), but for me this is the least memorable track on the album. That’s OK though, because this moves into the album’s biggest positive of any Kate Bush record, it that has the strongest ending. This strength begins with “Never Be Mine,” for my money an underrated track in the Kate Bush catalogue with an absolutely gorgeous vocal performance accompanied by Irish instrumentation and a pulsating synth and that all culminates in a very, for lack of better words, sensual climax. Then there’s “Rocket Tail,” the most obvious progressive-rock track that she has made to this point (and probably ever since, despite the plenty of rock number on The Red Shoes). A story of a woman turning herself to a literal rocket is made even more memorable by the courageous decision to make almost the first half of the track completely acapella (with help from the Trio Bulkara). It’s this kind of creativity that I can see inspiring future artists like Bjork making a whole album this way in Medulla. The second half meanwhile sees Kate Bush merges her wonderful shrieks with the equally amazing shrieks of Dave Gilmour’s iconic guitar work, creating a synergy that makes you see just what Gilmour saw in her fourteen years prior.
But this moves on to the album’s climax, a song that if it was any album would retroactively turn the whole thing into a classic regardless of quality: “This Women’s Work.” Another instance of Kate Bush writing a song so universal that it could have been written in another century, and also her writing about a specific scenario (that of a struggle with childbirth) and word them in such a poetic way that its emotions can be applicable to almost anyone (particularly those motherly-toned refrains of “I know you have a little life in you yet/
I know you have a lot of strength left”). But the final sweet spot that Kate hits on this song is composing a song that combines seeming emotional simplicity with the layered complexity that characterises nearly all of her work. As a result I would name it as the Kate Bush song, one that at one time in my life would always leave into an uncontrollable weeping mess (probably not helped by the nine yearlong Pavlovian response to this song being using in the UK’s NSPCC adverts). If I had to make my own personal list for the best songs of the 20th Century, there would be no doubt in my mind that this would be included. And that’s quite a lot of praise for a song originally written for She’s Having a Baby, the John Hughes movie even John Hughes fans kind of forget about.
These three final tracks, “Never be Mine,” “Rocket’s Tail” and “This Woman’s Work,” all add up together and culminate to create one of the best endings to an album I have ever heard…is a true sentence for the Vinyl version. The CD edition, and most copies available since, actually end with the bonus track “Walk Straight Down the Middle” (PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City did something similar with “This Wicked Tongue”). Although still a good song, with a great vocal performance from Kate (like in the weird animal call outburst) and some nice 80’s bouncing synth blips, it is definitely the track you put as a bonus. Placing the track around the middle area of the album would probably make more sense now, and to be honest I kind of ignore as the actual ending.
There are albums I prefer of Kate’s, but if there was any album that I would recommend without hesitation to newcomers it would be this one. It’s sound is probably Kate at her most accessible, but also contains the maturity and poetic (at times bizarre) subject matter that makes it quintessential Kate Bush record. And with four masterworks in a row, the only thing that seemed to stop Kate was herself wishing to take breaks.
But then something would happen. A record that provoked an unusual reaction, a reaction that I’m most interested to see the Record Club experience….
What did you think of the record, though?
Kate Bush Album Rankings
- Hounds of Love
- The Dreaming
- The Sensual World
- Never for Ever
- The Kick Inside