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The Thrill And The Hurting: 30 Years Of The Sensual World
The Quietus , October 14th, 2019 06:43

Burning fields, black November nights, the swirling beauty of the Uilleann pipes… Matthew Barton examines how Kate Bush made the perfect soundtrack to autumn

"They're setting fire to the cornfields/ as you’re taking me home"

So sang Kate Bush thirty years ago on the majestic 'Never Be Mine', a forlorn ballad of yearning that radiates from its parent album, The Sensual World with understated autumnal grace. It is a song that still conjures the same images for me every time I hear it – an early evening sunset in October, birds departing a harvested field, the sunlight low and fading on the horizon. Eberhard Weber's bass has a throbbing beauty that weaves around Kate's piano like a cloak, while the strident vocals of the Trio Bulgarka merge with the melancholic Uilleann pipes to evoke all sorts of emotions – sadness, hope, reflection, loss, longing. Beginnings. Endings. It doesn't matter when I hear it, what time of year, or in what context – it is immediately transportive. "The smell of burning fields / will now mean you and here," she sings. Well, quite.

Autumn, for me anyway, encapsulates all of these things. It's both a beginning and an ending, a time of reflection and anticipation; it bridges the warmth and joy of summer and the barren starkness of winter. Music is an art that can suggest a sense of time and place like no other – and has there ever been an artist who so emotively captures the mood and texture of the seasons as Kate Bush?

2005's Aerial, with its cover portrait of a honeyed sky, is her definitive summer album – all lambent birdsong and gleaming synth washes, with its allusions to lazy summer days "watching the painter painting" and exhortations, atop a flamenco beat, to "sing of summer/ and a sunset." The album's second disc A Sky Of Honey, brought to life so vividly during the Before The Dawn residency in 2014, traces a day from morning to night, from the elegant trills of 'Prelude' and 'Prologue' through the oceanic, balmy 'Nocturn' and back into the raucous dawn chorus of 'Aerial'.

The spectral intimacy of winter is immortalised in 2011's 50 Words For Snow, where Kate's alternately gentle and foreboding piano accompaniment truly sounds like falling snow – at once romantic and threatening. Listen to 'Snowflake' and tell me that the hypnotic, tender pulses don't make you think of drifting flakes, or that the gigantic spaces between notes don't suggest a slowly rising blanket of white. The album bears a bracing atmosphere, interpolating choral vocals, Victorian melodrama, and bizarre synth-prog featuring Stephen Fry reciting wintry synonyms. Oh, and a song about a tryst with a snowman.

Kate may yet make a definitive spring album, but for me 1985's Hounds Of Love has always been the one – the propulsive energy of it, its vigorous newness, its open, spacious production style that speaks of fresh life, optimism, independence. It's an album with vistas of clear skies and light rains ('The Big Sky'), coming-of-age epics ('Cloudbusting'), and indeed, depending on your interpretation, allegories of rebirth and redemption ('Waking the Witch', The Ninth Wave).

The Sensual World, then, with its poetic allusions to Bonfire Night and the harvest, is her autumnal album. If Hounds Of Love, with its percussive and effect-heavy arrangements, is a budding fruit, The Sensual World is its ripened, fully mature successor. Where the drums were booming they are now accentual, where the synths were pulsating and fulsome with Fairlight wizardry they are now ambient and warmly textured. The rich instrumentation reflects the mood; Kate had flirted with Celtic arrangements on songs like 'Night Of The Swallow' from 1982's The Dreaming and parts of Hounds Of Love (most notably 'Jig Of Life'), but the Uilleann pipes of Davey Spillane and the various Celtic instruments played by her brother Paddy and by Alan Stivell (arranged by Bill Whelan) are woven into the very fabric of The Sensual World.

Meanwhile, the titanic, full-throated vocals of the Trio Bulgarka (an inspired choice of personnel) add a wise spirit to the music. The palette of bells and pipes, the imagery of setting fire to cornfields, synths that are somehow removed yet oddly comforting - it all adds up to a striking sound world perfectly evocative of this particular time of year.

Everything about The Sensual World exudes autumnal beauty – from the elegant arrangements to its dusky, monochromatic cover portrait of a wide-eyed Kate Bush; from the album title's rusty-leaf text to the bells that fade in like a tender alarm call on a crisp morning. Her voice, an instrument that bloomed on The Dreaming and Hounds Of Love, is exquisite throughout, alternately keening and soft, throaty and forceful.

Kate turned 30 during the making of the album and conceded that her personal circumstances influenced the mature themes of the album. "I think it's a very important time from 28 to 32-ish, where there's some kind of turning point," she told NME in 1989. "Someone said in your teens you get the physical puberty and between 28 and 32 mental puberty. Let's face it, you've got to start growing up when you're 30, it does make you feel differently, I feel very positive having gone through the last couple of years."

As such, it is an album of opposites, of dual nature – it speaks of loss and hope, of childhood and adulthood. It reflects the passing of time, and the contemplation of mortality, but also the freedom of exploration and the generous acceptance that comes with age. For an album with such themes, autumn is the perfect setting.

Gone is the light joy of summer, and the freshness of spring, but in its stead something more mature, more realised – perhaps still bristling with internal conflict, but with a newly-attained level of perspective. It is an album that suggests both the ending of childhood and the beginning of adulthood ("let's face it, you've got to start growing up when you're 30") and the bizarre hinterland between the two – the tension between cutting cords ("just put your feet down child, cos you're all grown up now") and yearning for parental security ("reaching out for mama"), not to mention the prospect of parenthood of your own ("now starts the craft of the father").

'The Sensual World' itself sets out the album's autumnal stall immediately – soft, pealing bells give way to an arrangement that incorporates pipes, warm synth washes, and an insistent drum pattern; its accompanying video, following the singer through a forest of crimson leaves, is as seamless a supplement as could be. She told International Musician in 1989 how she had "had this idea for about two years to use the words from Molly Bloom's speech at the end of [James Joyce's] Ulysses, which I think is the most superb piece of writing ever, to a piece of music. So Del [Palmer] had done a Fairlight pattern, and I'd done a DX riff over the top of it, and I was listening to it at home, and the words fitted absolutely perfectly. I thought, 'God this is just ridiculous, just how well it's come together.'"

Famously, the Joyce estate refused permission for Kate to reproduce the text. Instead, she had to remodel the lyric to fit the rhythm and, in doing so, created one of the most beautiful of all her songs. As she explained, "to try and keep the sense of the original words, but something that would be original, I came up with this idea of Molly Bloom stepping out of this speech into the real world. And in the book she's such a sensual woman - womanly, very physical, it just seemed that she would be completely taken by the fact that this 2D character could actually go around touching. So that's what it turned into. The fact that they didn't let me use the lyrics turned the song into something very different. It was such a complicated process, and really quite painful to actually let it go." (More than two decades later, Kate was finally able to realise her initial vision on 'Flower Of The Mountain' from 2011's Director's Cut, which dials down some of the atmosphere and ups the ante on the softly-sung intimacy.)

The Molly Bloom of Joyce's soliloquy escapes the confines of his text, "stepping out of the page into the sensual world," to enjoy the "down of a peach," the "kiss of seedcake," to "wear a sunset," where bodies roll "off of Howth Head and into the flesh." Kate described the album as her first to really explore "positive female energy" – "I think it's to do with me coming to terms with myself on different levels," she told NME. "In some ways, like on Hounds Of Love, it was important for me to get across the sense of power in the songs that I'd associated with male energy and music. But I didn't feel that this time and I was very much wanting to express myself as a woman in my music rather than as a woman wanting to sound as powerful as a man. And definitely 'The Sensual World', the track, was very much a female track for me. I felt it was a really new expression, feeling good about being a woman musically."

Maturation, acceptance with age, being surer of yourself – these are themes that pervade the album, and themes that play out in the songs about human relationships and interactions. Throughout, there is a unique tension between youthful exuberance and adult complexity; as such, The Sensual World marks a shift in Kate's work, looking forwards as much as backwards, recognising the cyclical nature of life. It bears the maturity and wisdom of age tempered with the memories and experience of what has gone before – "living in the gap between past and future." A bit like autumn, really.

The intricacies of adult relationships emerge beautifully on 'Love And Anger' ("it's so deep you don't think that you can speak about it to anyone"); she addresses romantic frustrations in a more simplistic manner on 'Between A Man And A Woman' and 'Walk Straight Down The Middle,' while 'Heads We're Dancing' uses Hitler, perhaps slightly clunkily, as a trope to explore the nature and meaning of identity. 'Deeper Understanding,' meanwhile, tenderly and imaginatively probes the depths of adult introspection and loneliness. What happens when you are alone, isolated, alienated, trying to make sense of things?

Amid the confusion and uncertainty, she finds humanity in the mundane – the song garnered attention at the time for its bizarre plot line of digital romance, but who can bet against Yanka Rupkina's soaring, emotional solo vocal? Or the maze-like arrangement, a swirling kaleidoscope of fretless bass, electric piano, synth effects, and the robotic yet improbably cherubic vocals of the Trio Bulgarka? As Kate told Melody Maker in 1989, "When I was working on 'Deeper Understanding,' the idea was that the verses were the person and the choruses were the computer talking to the person. I wanted this sound that would almost be like the voice of angels: something very ethereal, something deeply religious, rather than a mechanical thing. And we went through so many different processes, trying vocoders, lots of ways of affecting the voice, and eventually it led to the Trio Bulgarka… it made absolute sense - you know, this loving voice - because they have a certain quality: their music feels so old and deep. It's really powerful; such intense, deep music that, in some ways, I think it is like the voice of angels."

There is also a diaphanous quality to Nigel Kennedy's sublime, elegiac violin in 'The Fog,' that cuts through the swathe of its, yes, foggy arrangement like a beam of light on a murky autumn day. Along with the sweeping 'Reaching Out,' 'The Fog' deals with the end of childhood, the passing of time, the way the parent-child relationship morphs over the years. The colossal, mournful strings (arranged by Michael Kamen) slowly twist and turn, rise and fall, like the churning waves – uncertain, threatening, unfamiliar – on "the day I learned to swim." It's a heavy arrangement, deep and hazy, like a fading childhood memory, recalled in adulthood.

As Kate told NME: "It's about trying to grow up. Growing up for most people is just trying to stop escaping, looking at things inside yourself rather than outside. But I'm not sure if people ever grow up properly, it's a continual process, growing in a positive sense."

The image of learning to swim and letting go – the parent letting go of the child, and the child letting go of the parent – is one of her most direct, effective, beautiful analogies. "I started with the idea of a relationship in deep water and thought I could parallel that with learning to swim, the moment of letting go," she told Q in November 1989.

"When my dad was teaching me to swim he'd hold both my hands, then say, 'Now, let go.' So I would, then he'd take two paces back and say, 'Right, swim to me,' and I'd be, 'Oo-er, blub, blub, blerb.' But I thought it was such a beautiful image of the father and child, all wrapped up in the idea of really loving someone, but letting them go, because that's a part of real love, don't you think, the letting go?"

The sense of letting go recurs in 'Never Be Mine', perhaps the definitive autumnal Kate Bush song, where the blurred lines of fantasy and reality become, with age, a lot clearer. "It's that whole thing of how, in some situations, it's the dream you want, not the real thing," she told NME. "It was pursuing a conscious realization that a person is really enjoying the fantasy and aware it won't become reality. So often you think it's the end you want, but this is actually looking at the process that will never get you there. Bit of a heart-game you play with yourself."

Adult realisations and experiences form the basis of much of The Sensual World, and add layers of depth to her work – a trademark that remains to this day. But Kate Bush remains one of pop's greatest proponents of joyful abandon, and the musical tour de force of 'Rocket's Tail' is one of the most obvious, bonkers examples. It is classic Kate Bush bizarre melodrama, a prog fantasia of David Gilmour guitars, throaty Bulgarka vocals, and an incredible, jerky harmonic arrangement that sounds like wheezing and whizzing fireworks streaking across a black November sky. As Kate told Q, "[Trio Bulgarka] couldn't speak a word of English and I couldn't speak a word of Bulgarian. Everything went through translators and it didn't matter at all. Lovely working with women, and especially them, they're very affectionate. We tended to communicate through cuddles rather than words. In fact, we could get on perfectly well without the translators. At one point we were talking away in the studio when the translator walked in and we all shut up because she'd suddenly made us self-conscious about what we were doing." That pretty much sums up the depth of feeling of The Sensual World.

 In 'Rocket's Tail', Kate imagines herself strapping on her size five lightning boots and flying across the skies, gunpowder packed, taking off from Waterloo Bridge. What could be more redolent of an English autumn than that?

Perhaps now the most famous of the album's songs, 'This Woman's Work' seems to condense all its themes into three-and-a-half minutes. It's about the calm wisdom and acceptance that comes with age, arriving at the point where "[you have] to grow up." Kate, solo on piano, sings from the perspective of a father at the birth of his child. Here, there's a different kind of letting go, a different kind of making peace – where 'The Fog' speaks of an ending and a beginning at one point of life, 'This Woman's Work' speaks of an ending and a beginning at quite another. Cycles, the turning of the seasons – real life. 
Kate Bush albums are always strange, intoxicating beasts; with her ear for deceptively amorphous, swooping melodies and insistent hooks, it's little surprise that she has sustained a pop career more than four decades on from the perceived novelty of 'Wuthering Heights' in 1978.

But beneath the veil of accessibility, Kate albums are densely layered, complex works incorporating sound effects, literary and cinematic allusions, hidden messages, and offbeat symbolism.

 Her albums have, over time, seemed to bend to the wills and the ways of the natural world. Hers is a landscape of fog, flowers, moors, sky, the sea. She employs the natural world as a means of communicating about love, life, loss, redemption; she expertly distils big themes into little capsules of everyday life. Kate Bush songs are both ordinary and extraordinary. 

Whether it is the moon casting silver light over the illicit love in 'Kashka From Baghdad', or the pungent flowers of 'Night-Scented Stock' blooming into the tragi-comic waltz of 'Army Dreamers', or the sea hiding cities, and memories, in 'A Coral Room', the natural world is more than a backdrop in Kate Bush's music; it is symbolic, it is intrinsic, it is a character itself. In The Sensual World, those burning cornfields, the November night beset by shrieking fireworks, the enveloping fog, are the fierce harbingers of life's complexities – the loss, the wisdom, the adventure, the sensuality that comes with experience.

The seasons in particular, for Kate Bush, represent markers of life; Hounds Of Love has a new-life energy borne of the fresh possibilities and newfound independence attained by building her own home recording studio. It is the sound of someone poised, on the precipice of the next phase of life, open to the opportunities ahead. Aerial is the sound of homebound contentment, of the labours of motherhood, and the joy of a new phase in life. It is slower of pace and mood; if Hounds Of Love is a spring day spent bounding across green fields looking up at clouds that look like Ireland, Aerial is a lazy, hazy summer's day in a garden surrounded by birdsong and sunlight. 50 Words For Snow, meanwhile, is brittle with elements just on the cusp of decay; the ageing, ghostly dog in 'Lake Tahoe,' for instance, and the preservation of Kate's son Bertie's choirboy voice in 'Snowflake.' The complex, woolly layers of some of her records are removed in favour of starkest simplicity, much like the bare branches of winter trees.

The Sensual World is like an orchard, each song a ripened fruit. It has an insular atmosphere in keeping with her home studio set-up, and the music perfectly matches the mood evoked in the lyrics. It is the sound of Kate Bush more comfortable in her own skin, facing the complications of life. It looks forward while somehow looking back. It may be an album that personifies Molly Bloom and references Hitler, but it is also a deeply personal, sensual utopia. "This is definitely my most personal, honest album," she told Q. "And I think it's my most feminine album, in that I feel maybe I'm not trying to prove something in terms of a woman in a man's world… On The Dreaming and Hounds Of Love, particularly from a production standpoint, I wanted to get a lot more weight and power, which I felt was a very male attitude. In some cases it worked very well, but… perhaps this time I felt braver as a woman, not trying to do the things that men do in music."

Kate Bush albums are, of course, for all seasons, but there's a reason why The Sensual World sounds just that little bit better in autumn. It is an album turning thirty years old as the leaves turn brown, the same age as its creator during the time of its recording. Time continues to pass, and the seasons continue to turn. I was talking about The Sensual World with my friend Alice recently; she remembers buying the cassette from Woolworth's as soon as it came out and listening to it on her Walkman for weeks on end. We talked about how 'The Fog' (and even just talking about 'The Fog') continues to give us goosebumps, how 'Never Be Mine' has soundtracked relationships, 'This Woman's Work' the birth of children. Many albums provide the backdrop to personal milestones, and for me, as a child of autumn, I have always thought of The Sensual World as something of my own birthstone album. I look forward, as every year, to plugging in the headphones and taking it on a long walk.

"We could be like two strings beating/ Speaking in sympathy/ What would we do without you?"