The Sensual World

Kate Bush

1989: Columbia CK 44164

  1. The Sensual World
  2. Love and Anger
  3. The Fog
  4. Reaching Out
  5. Heads We’re Dancing
  6. Deeper Understanding
  7. Between a Man and a Woman
  8. Never Be Mine
  9. Rocket’s Tail
  10. This Woman’s Work
  11. Walk Straight Down the Middle

In the decades-old debate of whether The Dreaming or The Hounds of Love is the ultimately perfect Kate Bush album, in which I’ve hovered for the many years between the two camps, feeling quite divided and uncertain myself, I find at times that I’m a fifth columnist who actually might put The Sensual World in the disputed top slot. It’s a really, really tough call, as anyone who loves these three albums in particular knows well…. I suppose I could say anyway that it’s Kate’s most beautiful record.

As a total conceptual work The Hounds of Love probably wins, as a two-part album anyway, and as a mind-blower The Dreaming certainly takes the cake; The Sensual World just happens to present a personally deeper and possibly darker cosmos with ever-so-slightly less extreme boundaries. The usual hyperbole zone is still represented, though: dancing with Hitler (or a look-alike), blasting off from Waterloo Bridge with a rocket (or was it just a burning stick?) strapped to her back, and sustaining a dependency on software are a few of the unlikelier scenarios of Kate’s in here.

Extremes aside, even included, this is a lush and lovely piece of work, a dark-colored but shiningly beautiful present to the world from an obsessively intense artist who clearly wants to present nothing if it’s not exactly what she has in mind. And that determination is hungrily appreciated by countless frenzied Kate Bush fans and by myself as well (I’m a fan, oh yes indeedy, but I do try to maintain some decorum…it’s not easy when you suddenly find yourself raving to some bewildered and suddenly exit-eyeingly edgy non-fan about the palimpsest-like levels of “Suspended In Gaffa,” realizing you’ve just played “Watching You Without Me” for the 40th time on Repeat, or making a 90-minute cassette out of a loop of the vocal chording on “Night-Scented Stock”).

When The Sensual World came out, I first saw it in record shops in London, where I was on my first trip to Europe; I knew of Kate’s work only fragmentarily…I think I had a copy of The Hounds of Love because of “Running Up That Hill” at that point, but certainly I’d never listened to The Dreaming, although I did have a general awareness of her as an “out there” artist. I think I didn’t get a copy of this album until after I’d returned to the U.S. and recovered from rock-bottom financial straits, but when I did get it I was fascinated with a fascination that only deepened after I was properly introduced to her two preceding albums.

Kate’s collaboration with the Trio Bulgarka is a beautiful expansion of her own musical creativity. I have become so accustomed to “Rocket’s Tail” that I don’t usually hear it with wonder anymore, but sometimes that’s still there…and the astonishment returns upon realizing how deftly Kate has woven a lovely Irish sort of melody among the chords and voices of the three Bulgarian women in its first half. In the same cultural family, the title track’s chorus was (and still is) a thrill to hear, for me, because just a year or two beforehand I had been introduced to that same Bulgarian folk song by choreographer Jennifer Carroll in Seattle (she had set her dance “Vulgarina” to it); it has such a gorgeous flickering shift from major to minor and back throughout that it evokes intriguing mixed emotions in me.

In terms of lyrics, the album is truly all over the goddamned place—even for Kate Bush, one might argue—but abundant in storytelling of whatever sort and just delicious from start to finish. It was fortunate for me (lovely, even) that I have read and enjoyed James Joyce’s Ulysses and therefore understood what was going on with the opening track’s lyrics (dovetailing excellently for me personally with my own aforementioned previous introduction to and love of the instrumental side of the picture) and its repeated “yes” element, including the bookending ones that are so key to understanding the book’s final chapter and its allusion to Penelope’s nightly unweaving of the tapestry she works on each day. What I *didn’t* know until several years after the album came out is just why Bush basically “poetically paraphrased” the original text she was referencing (refusal of permission to use it, by the copyright-holding Joyce estate), alluded to by the line “the arrows of desire rewrite the speech” so deftly as to make even the statement of original artistic intention a useful sensual/evocative bit of impressionism.

What the hell is the story going on in “Heads We’re Dancing”? Beats me, though as a history buff I can surmise and try out various interpretations it might support—that this came out in 1989, exactly 50 years after the referenced time stamp, suggests that more than a figurative allusion is in play here and that perhaps she’s reacting to having had a time-travel “wrinkle in time” incident. I don’t know that Bush herself could tell us definitively, as with “Love and Anger” I know she told an interviewer that *she* didn’t know what it was about (ditto “Rocket’s Tail,” to a large extent, though at least we know it got its name and possibly some nuances from one of her cats).

“Between a Man and a Woman” strikes me as being one angel or demigod confronting another about interference in human affairs (perhaps along the lines of Wings of Desire or, with a little extension of scenarios, even Angels in America). No, really! Or maybe they’re just friends of that couple, but I suspect Bush’s vision of things was more metaphysical. Whatever the case, it’s a lovely edgy mess of complications right out of the starting gate with no preliminaries to set a stage before the argument begins. Damn, she’s good at that sort of storytelling!