In 1967, the Beatles pushed the boundaries of rock n’ roll with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and since then the English have been forerunners in avant-garde music. Kate Bush released her debut album less than ten years after that, crafting a sound that utilized all of the glossy rock sounds of the ’80s infused with her own personal quirkiness. Her most recent album, Director’s Cut – her first in six years – re-imagines tracks from The Sensual World (1989) and The Red Shoes (1993) by skewing the instrumentation and recording brand new vocals.
It’s a lavish production, but is it worth it? Or is it all just a money-grabbing ploy?
The deluxe edition of the new disc is presented alongside the earlier recordings, so that comparisons aren’t only possible, but encouraged. Bush’s voice has matured — her shrill, girly spunk largely toned down. It’s similar to artists releasing acoustic versions of heavy songs in an attempt to unearth deeper meaning to the lyrics; the only problem, on Director’s Cut, is that even when a younger Kate Bush veered toward pop production, she never fooled listeners into thinking she never “got” the gravity of the songs.
Sure, the religious imagery of “Lily” takes on a new life that’s definitely more austere, “Moments of Pleasure” more closely resembles a hymn than the piano ballad it once was, and the naivety of “The Top of the City” is replaced with experience, but they’re not necessarily better than the originals. Bush channels new emotions, but the results are truly mixed.
In some cases, the newer versions are clearly less effective, and raise the question of why Bush even bothered. The new lyrics and Celtic pipes of the opening track, “Flower of the Mountain,” are nice touches, but her voice has a much sexier delivery in the original, the aptly-titled “The Sensual World.” Perhaps the 2011 versions are closer to what the songwriter originally envisioned, but for the casual listener they don’t quite achieve anything significant or new, and their relevance is unclear.
The lead single from Director’s Cut is an updated version of “Deeper Understanding” from The Sensual World, and it suffers from a similar problem. The song is all about the alienation that results from increased dependency on technology, and it was scarily prophetic when it was first released in 1989; the newer version has the potential to build upon innovations such as the Internet and BlackBerries, but other than the addition of new vocal effects, the song still sounds twenty years old. When Bush sings about her “little black box,” the image that comes to mind is of an archaic Commodore 64; she’s afraid of Neuromancer, not Mark Zuckerberg, and that’s a real shame.
Not that Director’s Cut is without merits; far from it. Kate Bush is an innovative songwriter, taking on heavy subjects – religion, sexuality, and deep personal struggles – with a poetic finesse that cannot be contained in regular metres or verse-chorus presentations, and this album is a complete package that shows a huge breadth of complex work that is ultimately indefinable (“art rock” comes close, but it’s still a loose term).
Don’t expect this album to have near the jaw-dropping impact that Bush’s earlier work did. However, after being virtually severed from the music industry for the bulk of the last two decades, this artist reminds us that even the moments of regurgitation on Director’s Cut can be considered breaths of fresh air in a world of cookie-cutter radio waves. She could have stirred the pot more, but this musical concoction is still unlike anything your ears have tasted before.
“I set you free,” she sings over a Clapton guitar riff on “And So Is Love” — and the fact that she’s still capable of doing that twenty years later is something worth embracing indeed.