Music Review: Kate Bush’s “Director’s Cut”

Kate Bush, looking positively mad, reworks her classic songs for "Director's Cut."

by Rio Liang

I will resort to desperate means to get an early hold of anything by Kate Bush. Thankfully, NPR has precluded any brash relocations to the UK or any (god forbid) illegal downloading on my part by posting online the entirety of “Director’s Cut” (which is set to be released on American shores on May 23, a full week after its UK release). After listening numerous times already to the album’s eleven reworked tracks from “The Sensual World” and “The Red Shoes,” half of me is awash in elation over hearing Kate’s beautifully mad voice for the first time since her glistening two-disc masterpiece from 2005, “Aerial” (her 2008 theme song for “The Golden Compass” soundtrack, “Lyra,” just doesn’t count for me), while the other half is left wondering what the hell she’s done to most of the songs. Initial bafflements however are part-and-parcel with Kate Bush–she is an artist who fares supremely well on repeated listenings. (Case in point:  It took me several playthroughs to “get” “The Dreaming” and “Hounds of Love,” both now required listening in my household).

“Director’s Cut” supplies certain felicities, including that of the title track from “The Sensual World,” now retitled “Flower of the Mountain.” It’s a curious marvel, listening to the song as Bush had originally intended it, with snippets of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from James Joyce’s “Ulysses” now in place of Bush’s (in hindsight still brilliant) alternate lyrics. But as successful and welcome as some of the album’s reconstructions are, some songs have come out of the reworking process as if they’ve undergone rather extreme cosmetic surgery with only jarringly passing resemblances to their former selves. “Rubberband Girl” in particular now sounds like it’s been sung underwater. “Deeper Understanding” has been “updated” with a distractingly autotuned chorus sung by Bush’s twelve-year-old, now lacking the relative cleanness of message and glorious warbling of the Trio Bulgarka of the original.

Kate Bush

The almost-screaming intensity of many of her tracks, especially from “The Red Shoes,” come across here as diluted. Bush’s voice has of course aged and grown deeper–not something to be faulted per se; in fact, the new depths of her voice had added a certain poignancy to her last album, “Aerial.” But “Aerial” was new material at the time with no particular calls for comparison to her older works. The last time she had re-recorded one of her classics, “Wuthering Heights” (for her greatest hits album, “The Whole Story”) it had unfortunately thrown a spotlight on the smoking-induced degradation of her voice. With her current album, which by its nature begs comparison with the originals, there’s very evidently no more coming in hurricanes, as it were, from Kate. “Director’s Cut” skirts the highs of songs like “Song of Solomon,” their absence glaring. But one thing you learn through hearing this album is that Bush has accepted her voice, bafflingly but rather admirably throwing her cares about her voice to the air. (That’s not to say Bush doesn’t at times soar, as she still does in, for example, “Top of the City,” one of the particularly higher-pitched tracks I had raised an eyebrow to upon learning of its inclusion in this album).

On the other hand, some songs have benefited from some toning down. For example, the original “Moments of Pleasure” now seems in hindsight too much with its former string arrangement. I do love the height she gains in the original when she comes across the line “Just being alive / It can really hurt.” But in the “Director’s Cut” version, which is stripped bare to just piano and voice, that once loud chorus is now replaced by the plaintive hum of a choir, providing something more subtly beautiful. What was once a big, big moment is now a small and somewhat ruminative moment of pause. The same applies to “This Woman’s Work,” which now is imbued with so much more haunting grace. There’s a better fitting sadness to it now more akin to “A Coral Room” from “Aerial.”

Fish people and Kate in knight's armor...what's unusual about that?

Jokes about piracy aside, Kate Bush’s “Director’s Cut” is a must-have for die-hard fans, and I intend to buy it, and not digitally either. There’s something about the presentation of the physical album that I’m sure will supplement and enhance the listening experience, just as it had for the sonically novelistic “A Sky of Honey” side of “Aerial,” whose liner notes provided some context to the narrative progression of the songs as a whole. But ultimately as much as I admire anything Kate Bush creates, I prefer her artistry when it’s forward-moving, devoted to newer works than returning to older ones. (If left to keep revising her older works, who knows what she’ll redo next; a reworking of “The Line, The Cross, and The Curve?”). In the meantime, “Director’s Cut” serves as a nice stopgap (for which I am still humbly grateful) till her next album of new songs. Kate, please keep it coming.

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