The appearance of any new music by Kate Bush is such a rare event that the excitement-bordering-on-hysteria that accompanies the release of a new album from her is understandable, perhaps. In the case of Bush’s last record, the 12-years-in-gestation Aerial (2005) [review here], the hype and hullabaloo seemed entirely justified. The record was a gorgeous, elemental, engrossing opus that matched the very best of Bush’s work for wit, whimsy, weirdness and wonder. Beautifully sequenced, the album’s two discs flowed thrillingly from the domestic to the epic, producing a record that worked to sharpen the listener’s perceptions, changing the way we see a sunset, how we hear bird-song. Predictably enough, Bush has laid low since Aerial’s release, emerging with only one new song in the intervening six years, the decidedly underwhelming “Lyra” for The Golden Compass soundtrack. Still, Aerial was proof enough that, after so many years of silence, Bush certainly wasn’t an artist to be written off.
Unfortunately, it’s that weight of expectation that makes Bush’s new release, Director’s Cut, such a disappointing experience overall. The album comprises 11 re-worked tracks from Bush’s two pre-Aerial albums, 1989’s The Sensual World and 1993’s The Red Shoes, all of which have been re-recorded by Bush with new drums and vocals and the addition of a few other elements. "For some time I have wanted to revisit tracks from those albums," Bush has said. "I thought they could benefit from having new life breathed into them. Lots of work went into the originals, but the songs now have another layer woven into their fabric." Although this might seem a slightly perverse, possibly even desperate project for a songwriter who has produced so little new work in the last 20 years, the impulse can be viewed as worthy enough. Bush is, after all, an artist who doesn’t tour, thereby depriving fans of the opportunity to hear fresh versions of older songs in concert. So an album of reworked tracks can be seen to have a place in her catalogue.
In addition, there’s an honourable tradition to such tinkering with past work. Joni Mitchell’s reworking of her songs with an orchestra on Travelogue (2003), for example, resulted in a stunning album that was at once a wide-ranging summation of Mitchell’s catalogue and a distinctive reinvigoration of it. But whereas Travelogue drew on material from across Mitchell’s body-of-work, placing older and newer songs into a dynamic dialogue, Director’s Cut’s focus on selected tracks from just two Bush albums destructively limits its scope, and neither are the changes made quite substantial or interesting enough throughout. And so, sadly, a project that could have been a vital and exciting addition to Bush’s catalogue ends up seeming, despite some worthwhile moments, scrappy, ill-structured, and insufficiently thought through.
For the most part, Bush’s approach here is to de-clutter the songs but in a few cases she adds and introduces new elements. Apparently unmotivated by any particular governing aesthetic, the changes end up feeling haphazard and random. Proceedings do get off to a decent enough start with “Flower of the Mountain” a re-christened and reworked take on the title track from The Sensual World, Bush’s adaptation of Molly Bloom’s final soliloquy in Ulysses. From the lovely opening peal of church bells onwards, the arrangement and instrumentation remains pretty much intact. What’s changed are the lyrics and the vocals, for Bush has finally been granted permission from the James Joyce estate to use the text from the novel as the basis for the song, as she originally intended. This means that we now get to hear her declaiming Joyce’s rapturous, erotic prose-poetry, in her new, earthier tones: “shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall…and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes.” Whether this improves the song as much as might be imagined is debatable but the interplay of Joyce’s words and the music certainly makes for an interesting comparison to the original version. And if by the end Bush overdoes the breathy cooing a tad, the song nonetheless retains its seductive warmth and allure.
The re-workings of the other tracks from The Sensual World yield decidedly mixed results. The best of the bunch is “Never Be Mine,” the slightly murky original benefiting from a more organic and spontaneous approach here, with lovely piano and guitar work, and a great new vocal from Bush that pitches the song beautifully between eager anticipation and mature resignation. Elsewhere, though, the addition of twinkling electric keyboard and a final glacial synthesised soundscape to the classic “This Woman’s Work” can’t compete with the beautiful delicacy and chilling background wails of the original; the new version is lugubrious, its impact muted. And despite some fine jazzy and electronic noodling at the close, the maligned first single “Deeper Understanding” doesn’t hold up much better in context either; the replacing of the dramatic harmonising of the Trio Bulgarka with the computerised, Auto-tuned vocals of Bush’s son Bertie remains one of the album’s several errors in judgement.
Bush tackles seven of the strongest songs from the underrated The Red Shoes, but with a couple of exceptions the reworked versions don’t serve to enhance or improve the tracks in any significant way. Both the wonderful “Song of Solomon” and “And So Is Love” feel like cut-and-paste jobs, made up of insufficiently integrated elements. The latter, in particular, boasts some horribly woozy vocals on the “Live your life for love,” section and comes complete with a fairly nonsensical lyric change, with “Now we see that life is sad/And so is love” becoming “Now we see that life is sweet…” Stripped of the cinematic sweep of Michael Kamen’s orchestral arrangement, shorn of some (pretty pivotal) lyrics, and now boasting solemn choral interludes, the "Coral Room"-ish take on “Moments of Pleasure” slows to a crawl, missing the bittersweet charm of the original. A chugging, slowed “Lily” also lacks momentum, and though Bush almost breaks through the inert arrangement at the end, with some fine screeching on the added “Who’s on the left? Who’s on the right?” freak-out, it comes as too little too late.
Rather better is the spruced-up title track, and a decent reworking of “Top of the City.” But for listeners who’ve lived with these songs for many years, there’s little to get stuck into here once the game of compare and contrast is up. And stripped of its springy exuberance, with Bush now muttering the lyrics as through she’s embarrassed by them, the revisioning of “Rubberband Girl” as a Stones-ish barroom rocker is a sad mistake, and ends the album on a particularly lacklustre note.
Director’s Cut is of course an album that Bush fans will want to own (it’s also available in a boxset with the remastered The Sensual World and The Red Shoes), and many of those who’ve heard it already profess to be enchanted with it. But though boasting scattered worthwhile moments, the album doesn’t hold together, and is a particular disappointment coming from an artist we know to be capable of so very much more. Even at its best, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the time invested here by Bush would have been better spent in the composition of new material. Happily, Bush is apparently developing some new songs; here’s hoping that she approaches them with more dynamism and drive than that manifested on this intermittently enjoyable but ultimately uninspiring stopgap release.
Reviewed for Wears the Trousers.