Four years after Hounds of Love, Kate comes up with a record that isn’t nearly as good. The Sensual World doesn’t try to be Hounds of Love part 2, which is a good thing, but the record lacks a strong direction of its own. The biggest problem with the record is a lack of what made the previous ones so appealing to me: compressed, urgent songwriting. For the first time, Kate allows the songs to drag on, or worse, dither before getting to the point. The track "Heads We’re Dancing" is the best example of that: the rhythm track is innovative, there’s a tension to the arrangement and the singing, but it feels padded, too long to carry the limited melodic and lyrical ideas. "Between a Man and a Woman" also suffers from this problem. In others like "Love and Anger", I hear the first signs of a certain awkwardness creeping into the melodies, a sense that what Kate is singing sits uneasily on top of a rhythm track.
There’s plenty that’s good on the record though. The title track is lush and erotic – Kate is probably the only arranger who can make uillean pipes sound sexy. "The Fog" has a lot of the urgency and complexity of the best material on Hounds of Love, "Never Be Mine" and "This Woman’s Work" are sensitive, introspective and above all melodic pieces that should appeal to musical traditionalists; and best of all, "Rocket’s Tail" is a monster composition, starting with a wailing chorus from the Trio Bulgarka, which counterpoints Kate’s main vocal throughout the song, even after they’re joined by Dave Gilmour’s soaring guitar work and a backing band sounding more like Pink Floyd than Pink Floyd themselves did at the time. An exciting, cathartic song that showed Kate still had it.
Given the choice between The Sensual World and any of the previous five albums, I wouldn’t pick The Sensual World to play. But the stronger tracks are doing fine in my MP3 collection.