With only three days to go before the Dutch release of Kate Bush’s next album, 50 Words for Snow, I’d better hurry up and get this review out. Seven months is plenty of time to write a considered review; I’ve played the album or its individual songs about 20 times during that period, which is about 15 times more than Robert Christgau gives an album, and 18 times more than some schlub who just has to churn out copy for a music rag. 20 times more, in some cases.
And in the age of Spotify, that’s what you need! There is no point in anyone writing a review based on two or three listens when you can just link the reader to the Spotify URL. Indeed I’ve already heard most of 50 Words for Snow through the NPR First Listen stream. For a quick first impression, the album itself will do quite nicely, thank you very much. But living with the songs for months and giving a considered opinion on them, is still useful.
Let it be known than that I’ve found Director’s Cut alternately uplifting and infuriating. I would hate it on one listen, then put it on again a day later and find it not so bad, then put it on again and hate it again. Over time, most of the songs grew on me, but some utterly fell flat over time.
The fact that these are songs I’ve lived with in their original form for much longer doesn’t help. Every change in nuance gets filtered through the comparison with the originals. Where Kate’s voice is a bit weaker, where a favorite bit of instrumentation is missing, the new version is the one that suffers. Only over time did I find that stripping down the old layers of instruments gave the remaining ones more time to shine, and that the vocal changes, while sometimes highlighting a loss of range and power compared to the original versions of the songs from 1989 and 1993, were largely well-considered and the work of an artist very much in control of what she wants out of her instrument.
That isn’t to say it always works. “Flower of the Mountain” continues to suffer from the comparison with the original “The Sensual World” – the lyrics Kate wrote when she wasn’t allowed to use the Molly Bloom soliloquy in 1989 fit and flowed better, her voice was (not to put too fine a point on it) sexier and the production didn’t have a hair out of place. On “Deeper Understanding”, Kate articulates like K9 from the classic Doctor Who series and the track doesn’t get off the ground until after the vocal part is over. And let’s not get started on “Rubberband Girl”: there is a decent musical jam hidden under the mumbled vocals, with drummer Steve Gadd and bass player Danny Thompson giving it their best, but it’s hardly audible under the muffled production.
The rest of the album, though, is pretty good, and once I made an abbreviated playlist of it without the songs that didn’t work, I found myself playing it regularly over a sustained period of time. “Lily” sounds less urgent but more claustrophobic and builds up its energy slowly over the course of the track. “The Red Shoes” now sounds like something you actually want to dance to. “Never be Mine” has layers of artifice stripped from it, all the way down to simplifying the chorus. It wears its emotion on its sleeve instead of dancing around it. “Top of the City” and “And So Is Love” are more subtly reworked and are musically hard to tell apart from the originals (even after seven months!), but do appear to have a little more breathing room to them.
“This Woman’s Work”, one of three completely re-recorded songs, is a completely different song now. With its chiming, reverberating, minimal keyboard accompaniment and desperate, yearning vocals it sounds bleak, raw like an open wound. “Moments of Pleasure”, on the other hand, has been changed to be more uplifting – compared to the original, it is like a scar that has healed up. Kate’s vocal on this new version is jazzier, and looser, sounding like she’s singing for the joy of singing. These two tracks must have been where things started to fall into place for the next album. The same glee can be found in “Song of Solomon”, my favorite from the album. It’s lost a little in subtlety, but it’s gained in momentum, with Kate pushing herself through an abrupt sonic shift in the bridge to that raucous “Wop-bam-boom”. Here, Kate’s aged voice is sexy, succeeding where “Flower of the Mountain” didn’t do the trick.
Taken as a whole, Director’s Cut is a fine record in its own right that has proven to be a grower. I now rate it above Aerial, reversing a twenty-five-year trend in which each new Kate Bush album did less for me than the previous one (to be fair, she only released three albums during that period). But did it need to be made at all?
Back in April/May, that question was a real poser. Knowing what we know now, it’s easier to answer. Director’s Cut was a dry run, a test for Kate’s new studio setup and record label. It also scratched an itch that needed to be dealt with before she could move on to the next record. From interviews, it turns out that Director’s Cut was very difficult to make, but once Kate was done, the next album was very easy. Recording this album jumpstarted the creative process and resulted in a new album within a year. As new Kate Bush records are normally so rare, that alone should make it worthwhile. That the actual album is listenable at all is a bonus – that 75% of it is this good is a blesssing.