Kate Bush is no stranger to a high-concept album or two. She’s one of those musicians that begins with a string of commercial successes and transitioned into projects which blurred art and popular appreciation. She’s also been written off as a child-like songwriter, something that rings true with musicians such as Joanna Newsom today. Kate Bush had long-establisher herself as a talented songwriter prior to The Sensual World rolling around in 1989, with albums such as Hounds Of Love (Arguably her other masterpiece) with large-scale concepts about a woman drowning at sea in a song suite called ‘The Ninth Wave’. Though The Sensual World did not have such big ideas along the lines of ‘The Ninth Wave’, it was no less thematically tight. As the title suggests, Bush explores sensuality in a way she hadn’t before. She was frank and unapologetic about emotions and desires – and rightly so. Whereas other (male) songwriters could spill their filthiest desires, it would be shocking to see a woman do the same. Bush asks ‘What is sensuality?’. A lot is said for sexuality in popular music; we get plenty of that. But sensuality? There’s lots to be explored there, and Bush repeatedly comes back to it, examining the different types, and not just the sexual kind. It has sexual connotations and can be taken literally, but it can also mean a physical overwhelming of the senses. A longing for physicality or the presence of family, which Bush comes back to time and time again.
Kate Bush outlived many of her contemporaries in the ’80s because whilst grabbing technology with both hands and making use of the synthesiser and drum machine, she was careful not to overuse them like many synthpop acts would. She meticulously blended new with old, from the Bulgarian folk trio Trio Bulgarka, traditional Irish music and classic rock courtesy of David Gilmour on guitar providing some of the silkiest solos outside his more famous band. A track like ‘Deeper Understanding’ is spooky in how forward-looking it is, with Bush singing ‘I turn to my computer and spend my evenings with it like a friend’ ten years prior to Sleater-Kinney’s technological prophecy ‘God Is A Number’. This was 1989! Bush pounced on significant technology with references that can still be understood today (aside from lyrics about ordering computer programmes from magazines and dial-up connections). She combines the hyper-modern and emotionally vacant computers with lyrics about love and an understanding that can’t be gained from a mathematical machine. Whilst computers will give a precise answer and Bush finds a peace in that precision, she also wants vague answers and questions that can only be found in human contact. Once again, this is the sensuality of basic human touch and connection, not of the sexual kind, though Bush does say ‘I’ve never felt such pleasure / Nothing else seemed to matter / I neglected my bodily needs.’
Bush finds similarities in water on ‘The Fog’. She compares the love of present to learning to swim in the past as a child. It’s not just the water in the previous memory that she swims in, it’s more the nostalgia of the memory she remembers. The comparison to a large body of water, with unknown dangers underneath, the fear of nothing is more than an excellent comparison to love. She repeats a sentence her father said to her as a child – ‘I’ll let go of you gently, then you can swim to me’. She has to be let go of her last connection, whether that’s family, a past lover, in order to swim somewhere new. She’s afraid of how big her love is, she’s afraid that it’s so big that it’s doomed to fail, like a star destined to be a black hole, it’s only a matter of time. On The Sensual World, growing up and becoming an adult go side by side with love, and that dual need for sensuality is what drives the themes of the album. Maybe we’re just heightening the intense images that Bush transmits, but the album is so mysterious and vast that it begs to be interpreted and explored in different ways. There’s so many different messages that can be taken from The Sensual World and some messages exist in their own vacuum, like ‘Heads We’re Dancing’, which is about a woman discovering she had danced with Hitler the previous night and not realising that she had ‘danced with the devil’.
The Sensual World not only vastly improves on its masterpiece predecessor, but manages to engulf all of the themes explored on that album and more. No more were the ‘Hounds’ of Love chasing her in the streets and Bush ‘never knowing whats good for me’, but rising above it without becoming a hound herself. She never completely leaves behind her more whimsical side, that would be a shame to see that quirky Britishness disappearing under the adult exploration of sensuality, but it’s more weighty to the mature side. It might not be as conceptually ‘big’ as The Hounds Of Love, but Bush does more with less, which is more satisfying that the occasionally dragging back end of The Hounds. At the core, it’s a great pop album. It shows the best parts of the 1980s; the technical advancements, the cute drum machine on ‘Heads We’re Dancing’, the collision between traditional folk and rock music and the far future of pop that caused a decade of often confusing music that eased off in the 90s towards the sounds of the future and leaving rock and folk in the dust. Kate Bush isn’t just the girl who sang ‘Wuthering Heights’, this album is proof of a mind that would happily blend avant-pop with high concepts that didn’t fall into the traps that prog rock did – which is kind of ironic considering their flag bearer plays guitar on The Sensual World, right?
Funnel Recommends: The Sensual World / Love And Anger / This Woman’s Work