Wednesday, May 25, 2011

She's An Artist, She Don't Look Back?

Kate Bush - Director's Cut (EMI)

By audaciously re-recording and repackaging tracks from two albums in her back catalogue, Kate Bush seems to have caused some consternation. First, it's astonishing that in spite of being told that the new material from Kate Bush was not going to be a new album as such, many people still seemed to be expecting exactly that. Secondly, and more significantly, why do so may people seem to think revisiting material from the past is such a musical crime? Jazz musicians do so all the time, not just in re-interpreting the standard repertoire, but in reworking their own material. Wayne Shorter has recorded Footprints several times with a variety of ensembles. I see no reason for a song to be a solid, locked in artefact once it has been recorded. Why can it not be a living, breathing artefact, open to new performances and arrangements as time passes? Bob Dylan has long understood this very well.

Another subjective issue in any asssessment of Director's Cut is the apparent consensus that The Sensual World and The Red Shoes (the two albums from which these tracks are sourced) are the weakest and least admired of Bush's albums. I've never quite understood why this might be. For sure, Hounds of Love set an impressive conceptual and artistic standard - but I've always found an embarrassment of riches across these albums, even when they apparently present Bush at her most conventional. Her songwriting has been consistently strong.

Clearly, there were elements in the production and arrangement of this material that Bush herself was never happy with - Director's Cut has afforded her the chance to go back and make alterations. Some of these are very minor, pedantic changes. Others are massively significant. The result is an album that probably has little chance of rising to the top of fans' favourites, but which offers a brilliant case study of Kate Bush's artistic temperament and attention to detail - and, most interestingly of all perhaps, evidence of the change in timbre in her voice since the original tracks were recorded.

This change is immediately clear on Flower of the Mountain, a new version of The Sensual World in which Bush has finally been given permission to use Molly Bloom's soliloquy from James Joyce's Ulysees. Her voice seems older, perhaps wiser but also less adventurous somehow. Other than the new vocal, there isn't a lot of difference between this new version and the original, and I have to admit that the original sounded more erotic and involving to my ears. It sounds rather as if Bush is struggling to adapt the song to the words she always wanted to use. Her own actually worked more effectively. There are other alterations that seem to spoil the atmosphere of the original songs too - Lily is transformed into a rather lumbering funk-rock track, with superfluous streams of distorted guitar. It actually sounded less dated in its original guise.

Perhaps the most significant change throughout is the drums. These often seemed over-produced on the original albums, but here she has captured a much more natural, warm and acoustic drum sound. This comes across particularly clearly on the wonderful new versions of Deeper Understanding and Song of Solomon. The latter is a great example of how very subtle modifications can have a tremendous impact. The backing vocals of the Trio Bulgarka much clearer, and it has a tremendously detailed mood. The vocoder section of Deeper Understanding (featuring Bush's son Bertie) has caused some controversy. It perhaps makes the song sound less futuristic and even more of its time, however prescient it was when first released. Bush's tale of computer addiction has very much been borne out in the internet age. The mysterious, wordless extended coda, with its lithe, expressive drum pattern, is simply magnificent.

The most substantial changes are sure to divide opinion. This Woman's Work, among her most loved songs, and something of a power ballad in its original form, has been completely transformed into an Eno-esque, spacey, ambient lament. It tugs on the heartstrings a little less, but perhaps its distinctive contemplative melancholy is more nuanced and more realistic. I love both versions - the old one, of course, is very much still there. Less successful for me is Rubberband Girl, now remodelled as a clunky Rolling Stones pastiche. This kind of context just does not really suit Bush's flighty, theatrical approach to singing - it simply shows that she works far better as an idiosyncratic solo artist than as frontwoman in a rock and roll band.

Less transformative, but brilliantly designed nonetheless, is the new version of Moments of Pleasure. This was always a strong song - but even the most die-hard of Bush fans would surely have to admit that the original was a little over the top. This new version retains the piano ballad template, but the delivery and execution are considerably more restrained and elegant. Along with Song of Solomon, Deeper Understanding and This Woman's Work, it is one of the album's great triumphs.

On listening to Director's Cut, I'm reminded of something Ian Carr used to say a lot in his jazz workshops at WAC (now threatened with closure due to Arts Council cuts) - 'sometimes you have to look back in order to move forwards.' It's very wise advice actually, and I wonder when new Bush material does emerge, it might be considerably stronger as a result of her hard work on this project. Even if I'm wrong in this prediction, there's something hugely satisfying in seeing Bush wrongfoot everyone in such committed, steadfast style. Once again, it seems she is restless and on the move.

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