Kate Bush’s sixth album came into the world 30 years ago today sounding old. Largely midtempo and/or melancholy, The Sensual World signaled a calming down of sorts from the furious innovation and conscious madness of the albums that directly preceded it: 1980's Never Forever, 1982's The Dreaming (her masterpiece, in my opinion), and 1985's Hounds of Love (her masterpiece, in most people’s opinion). The sound on The Sensual World is largely murky, a heap of instruments and ideas compressed into a soggy chunk of sponge. Drums thud like they’re full of sand, guitar solos scurry out to the forefront of the sound design and then back in like rodents, and Bush’s endlessly exploding and lifting roman-candle of a voice is so processed as to sound like it’s coming from behind glass. During recording, Bush blended original sounds with presets on the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, a power-ballad staple, and the result could sound typical of its day, as though the DX7 had won the battle with Bush’s ideas.
The Sensual World abandoned the conceptualization that made Hounds of Love’s B-side, the narrative song cycle The Ninth Wave, so brilliant. Instead, comprising the album in Bush’s own words were, “10 short stories that are just saying something different in each one.” (The CD version contained an 11th song, the bonus track “Walk Straight Down the Middle.”) It was in every way less immediately thrilling than anything Bush had released prior to it, and for years I dismissed it. Contrast the utter madness of The Dreaming’s “Suspended in Gaffa” to the assured tranquility of The Sensual World’s title track.
“Boring music for old people,” is how I regarded The Sensual World. But now that I, too, am old, I get it. If Hounds of Love found Bush at peak pop stardom, a flash of lightning when her unbridled genius had commercial appeal (it was a massive hit in the U.K.), The Sensual World is decidedly post-peak. But there’s something almost comforting in hearing an art-god come down to earth, and what a post-peak The Sensual World is. In the most self-possessed manner, this is not an album that immediately signals its brilliance. You must stroll leisurely through the forest of Bush’s imagination and parse it out as you go. If compared to the three albums that preceded it, it is muted, less theatrical, less interested in braying in your ears like a donkey, its restraint is deserved. Imagine what it would have been like to be Bush, routinely letting the weirdness in while concocting her songs. The sheer psychic burden of her early-’80s work is palpable and exhausting (in, I would argue, the most sublime way). Imagine what it was like to conduct that, to sound completely out of control on records, while refining with the hand of a perfectionist, as Bush did. Her midtempos were merited.
Bush turned 30 on July 30, 1988, during the recording of The Sensual World. When she finally emerged from the cave of her home studio after the longest period of time between albums she’d ever taken—over four years—she described the tortured process of its creation. “I went through a patch where I just couldn’t write,” she said in an interview that ran in the February 1990 issue of Musician. “I didn’t know what I wanted to say... Everything seemed like rubbish, you know? It seemed to have no meaning whatsoever.” Even after the album was released, Bush admitted to not knowing what the single “Love and Anger” was actually about.
In his comprehensive Bush biography Under the Ivy, Graeme Thomson writes that after working on the album for 18 months with her engineer/boyfriend Del Palmer, the summer of 1988 brought with it a second wave of studio work that found Pink Floyd guitarist (and early Bush champion) Dave Gilmour lending his hand (and axe) to two of the songs, contributions from John Giblin on bass, and Bush’s three-song collaboration with the Bulgarian throat-singing group Trio Bulgarka, whose vocals are one of the defining features on The Sensual World.
Culturally specific sounds not frequently heard in Western pop music were a cornerstone of Bush’s work, which had long been influenced by her Celtic roots. The Sensual World expanded her palate to include a valiha, a stringed instrument native to Madagascar. Uilleann pipes on the title track (which to my Yankee ear just sound like bagpipes) play a part inspired by the Macedonian piece called “Nevestinsko Oro” (or “Bride’s Dance”). Bush also pushed for what she described as an “Eastern rhythm” on the album highlight “Never Be Mine.” The seamlessness with which she integrates her foreign references is a true feat of execution and suggests a lack of fetishizing on her part.
The sources that inspired her subject matter were similarly all over the map. “Rocket’s Tail” was named after her cat. She got the idea of “Between a Man and a Woman” from a line in The Godfather. Someone she knew once shared time with J. Robert Oppenheimer and didn’t realize until afterward that the man they were so charmed by was the one who is commonly credited with having developed the atomic bomb. In “Heads We’re Dancing,” the charming devil is transposed onto Hitler, whom Bush’s narrator fails to recognize in 1939 until she sees his picture in the newspaper the next day. (It’s kind of a dumb story, especially because it just crescendos on the narrator’s surprise with no real insight beyond that.)
Bush’s howlingly sad “This Woman’s Work” was written for and featured in the John Hughes dramedy She’s Having a Baby, released the year before The Sensual World. Bush called it “one of the quickest songs I’ve ever written,” as well as easy, since she had source material that it had to speak to—there was no chance of being paralyzed by the blank page on which anything could happen. The song manages to completely transcend the largely forgotten movie for which it was written. Via its litany of regrets and its ambivalence toward the thrill and the hurting (to crib a phrase used in “Never Be Mine”) of rummaging through old memories, Bush was able to tap into a universality that Hughes simply could not. The crystalline second verse (“Give me these moments back/Give them back to me/Give me that little kiss/Give me your hand”) are, to my ears, the most gorgeous four bars Bush ever wrote or sang.
The whoosh of the tastefully placed orchestral accents, the G force the song leaves as it hurtles to a close of furious desperation, it’s all so enormous for a weepy little song about a fictional man whose wife is having a difficult childbirth. Many people consider this their favorite Kate Bush song, and on many, many days I totally see where they are coming from. (“This Woman’s Work” is her third most streamed song on Spotify with over 16 million streams, after “Wuthering Heights” [54 million+] and “Running Up That Hill” [almost 40 million].)
But the reference that cast the biggest shadow, both in terms of the album’s theme and the headache it gave Bush, was Molly Bloom’s ecstatic monologue in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Bush initially wrote “The Sensual World” using lines from the passage in which Bloom enthuses about pleasure, including sex. When she asked permission to use Joyce’s words, though, the dead author’s estate turned her down. On the 2011 release Director’s Cut, which featured rerecorded versions of songs from The Sensual World and its 1993 follow-up The Red Shoes, Bush was able to record a version of the song with its original lyrics in tact, retitled “Flower of the Mountain,” after at last securing the Joyce estate’s permission. I’d argue, though, that the original (which is to say revised) version, “The Sensual World,” is more ingenious for managing to reference Molly without copying her and applying a postmodern interpretation of how the character would react to the physical world when “stepping off of the page.” Bush’s refrain is an ecstatic, breathy “Yes!” which Joyce described as “the female word.” She exhales it 17 times as the song saunters along.
While Bush’s experiments with rhythm in many ways defined the two albums that preceded it, her pulse was gentler on The Sensual World, and not just because of the soft-focus nature of its mastering. “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,” she told Q. “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.”
Over and over in promo interviews of the era, she talked about feeling more comfortable than ever to explore her womanhood in her music. Bush had been sexualized in the press for her appearance, and continued to be during The Sensual World era, as well as after. “When I started in this business, I felt very at home in my body,” she explained to The Guardian. “And it was very scary for me those next few years, because whatever I wore, whatever I did, people were putting this incredible emphasis of sexuality on me, which I didn’t feel. I think I was a victim of the fact that I was a young woman who was writing music and the emphasis went on the fact that I was a young woman. There were a lot of things that didn’t fit like I was very young, I was female, people thought I was attractive, and I had a very idealistic and positive attitude at a time when negativity and anarchy were hip. So I was coming in from completely the wrong tangent.”
The Sensual World, then, represented a gentle reclamation. “I think I’m just starting to think of myself as a woman, and to actually feel quite nice about that,” she also told The Guardian. “I also feel I can express myself as a woman without having this tremendous pressure from the outside world, which I... couldn’t move. But I feel really good now.” Disappointingly, though, when Greater London Radio’s Janice Long asked Bush if she considered herself a feminist, Bush’s response was “Yuck.” What followed was a trite rationale that feminism is for extremists.
Another talking point of the 1989-90 press cycle was the virtue of simplicity. “I do think art should be simple, you see,” she said to Melody Maker. “It shouldn’t be complicated, and I think, in some ways, this has come across a bit complicated.” This was coming from someone whose intricately layered previous work seemed designed to beguile. Its eclectic source material and sonic globetrotting aside, The Sensual World is Bush’s most straightforward album, at least since her first two, which predated her love affair with electronics and, in retrospect, hew more toward standard singer-songwriter fare (at least sonically speaking). The Sensual World, an album of songs about relationships according to Bush, is only occasionally erotic so as to be that kind of sensual, but it does uniformly exist firmly in the realm of the senses.
Looking at the paper is what leads to the big Hitler reveal in “Heads We’re Dancing.” “The smell of burning fields/Will now mean you and here,” she sings on “Never Be Mine.” A taste of seedcake gets passed between the narrator of “The Sensual World” and a lover. “Reaching Out” is all about touch (“See how the child reaches out instinctively/To feel how fire will feel”). It’s one of the only Kate Bush songs that I would comfortably qualify as utter cheese, as her voice trembles in the verses like the lower lip of a petulant child, and the chorus explodes into melodrama that in the moment feels unearned. But when you consider the bigger picture, that The Sensual World is an album about connections—some of them missed, others unconventional (“Deeper Understanding” tells the prescient story of a narrator who turns away from real-life communication to the safe haven of a computer)—all of the attempts at touch in “Reaching Out” are more plausibly worth wailing about. There’s so much feeling here and everywhere, and not all of it makes contact.
The psychodramas of “Deeper Understanding” and “Never Be Mine” reside in the dimension of the narrator’s mind. “Never Be Mine” is not about longing; it is resolute in its described relationship having no future. “I want you as the dream/Not the reality,” sings Bush, putting into such simple words such complicated inner turmoil. “Never Be Mine” is classic Bush, at once fantastical and human. The Trio Bulgarka and uilleann pipes blare in unison during the song’s chorus so as to be indistinguishable, and a bass unwinds in a woozy middle instrumental midsection that’s as alien sounding as anything Bush ever committed to tape. It’s the only Sensual World song to have been included on her Before the Dawn live album that captured her most recent concert run at the Hammersmith Apollo in London in 2014. Sitting alongside bonafide hits from Hounds of Love and Aerial, the song’s placement on the retrospective release suggests how important Bush thinks the song is in her catalog. She’s not wrong.
In 2018, Bush released remastered versions of all of her albums, which served to clear out some of the sonic murk on The Sensual World, though the late-’80s hum still sits on its songs like peach fuzz. Whereas other Bush albums seemed to come from another world entirely, The Sensual World is very much a product of its time, for good and bad. Its earthliness is, in fact, the point. Bush told NME that there was more of herself on this album than ever before. Acknowledging her artistic obsessiveness, though, she told Radio One’s Roger Scott, “It is just an album, it’s just a part of my life. It’s not my life. And I think it was, you know... making albums was my life and it doesn’t feel like that is any more.” Bush’s ordinary, though, still manages to be extraordinary by just about any standard.