The appearance of any new music by Kate Bush is such a rare event these days that the borderline hysteria that shepherds the release of a new album is perhaps more understandable than with the latest overblown non-entity. In the case of Bush’s last record, 2005′s twelve-years-in-gestation Aerial, 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 birdsong. Predictably enough, Bush has laid low since then, emerging with only one new song in the intervening six years (the decidedly underwhelming ‘Lyra’ for the soundtrack to ‘The Golden Compass’). Still, Aerial was proof enough that, even after so many years of silence, Bush wasn’t one to write off.
Unfortunately, it’s that weight of expectation that makes Director’s Cut such a disappointing experience overall. The album comprises eleven reworked 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 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 twenty 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.
In addition, there’s an honourable tradition to such tinkering with past work. Joni Mitchell’s reworking of her songs with an orchestra on 2003′s Travelogue, 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, the focus of Director’s Cut on selected tracks from just two Bush albums destructively limits its scope, and the changes made are neither substantial or interesting enough to compensate. 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, only rarely introducing new elements. Apparently unmotivated by any particular governing aesthetic, the changes end up feeling haphazard and random. Proceedings 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 original 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 older, 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. And if by the end Bush overdoes the breathy cooing a tad, the song nonetheless retains its seductive warmth and allure.
The reworkings 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 glacial synthesised soundscape to the classic ‘This Woman’s Work’ can’t compete with the beautiful delicacy and chilling background wails of the spare 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; Bush’s decision to replace the dramatic harmonies of the Trio Bulgarka with the computerised vocals of her 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 only in a couple of cases do the reworked versions serve to enhance or improve them in any significant way. Both the wonderful ‘Song Of Solomon’ and ‘And So Is Love’ feel like cut-and-paste jobs, made up of poorly integrated elements. The latter in particular boasts some horribly woozy vocals and comes complete with a fairly nonsensical lyric change: “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 a solemn choral section, ‘Moments Of Pleasure’ is slowed to a crawl and spoils the bittersweet core of the original. A chugging, slowed ‘Lily’ also lacks momentum, and though Bush almost breaks through the inert arrangement at the finale, with some fine screeching on the added “Who’s on the left? Who’s on the right?” freakout, it’s too little too late.
Faring rather better are 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 is 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 remastered versions of its source material – but with only scattered worthwhile moments it simply doesn’t hold together. 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. With the promise of just that on the horizon, here’s hoping she approaches those songs with more dynamism and drive than is manifested on this intermittently enjoyable but ultimately uninspiring stopgap release.
[Fish People; May 16, 2011]