You’re probably like me: you started reading Ulysses because some college professor in a tweed jacket (or a fellow student with an immaculate set of breasts) told you to. You felt smart when you began, folding yourself into a corner somewhere with a well-worn copy, feeling as though you were about to embark on some life-changing journey through the intellectual abandon of the Modernists, uncovering heretofore undiscovered literary truths, a journey that, in your mind’s eye, would certainly culminate with your face nestled within your classmate’s aforementioned mammary glands, the both of you screaming with pleasure wild into the night.
While we’re on the subject of things titular in nature, consider the title track from 1989’s The Sensual World, a song inspired by the last chapter of Ulysses, euphemistically referred to as “Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy,” but in actuality just pages and pages of run-on sentences. Your author would warn you of plot-related spoilers ahead, but we both know you won’t ever read Ulysses to completion. Furthermore, so that you need not suffer the inequity of this ghastly novel, nor the humiliation of not finishing it, I have here provided the last few lines of the ‘chapter’ in question:
O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
If you find that your imagination is failing to provide the kind of ‘radiance’ that Joyce himself often spoke about – that subtle aura that all Modernists simply assumed would just billow forth from the page – then forthwith I shall direct you to Back to School, the classic Eighties film starring Rodney Dangerfield:
Better, right? As in the prose, upon hearing the repeated use of the word “yes,” in Bush’s thready, provocative timbre, The Sensual World suddenly became to me like a magical love letter. Indeed, even Joyce himself described “yes” as “the female word” in that it mirrored “acquiescence, self-abandon, relaxation, the end of all resistance.”
Keep in mind, however, that Joyce was a major tool.
By the time you finally abandoned this terrible ruse of modernist literature, you felt stupid and not a little depressed by your own postmodern lack of discipline. You lost contact with that professor and never got close to any boobs, having gotten lost somewheres along the way between Sandymount Strand and Westland Row
Have no fear, for even your author doesn’t understand the above reference because he barely got past the first few pages of this, Joyce’s ultimate practical joke on the English language. You and I, see, belong to a uniquely empowered, post-Joycian counter-culture: jerks who talk incessantly about books, only occasionally reading them, almost always disparaging them, never actually writing them. Satisfied with being adequately-read, we have since used our incredible powers of persuasion to have sex with plenty of women. We are now fully realized assholes.
And though I may have been an asshole in my twenties, when I first really listened to The Sensual World in my thirties, I was rendered quite speechless. As the story goes, Kate Bush had originally intended for the text of Molly’s orgasmic soliloquy to accompany her (Bush’s) music, but the rather shiesty James Joyce estate wouldn’t hear of it. What could be more modernist than adhering to copyright?
Instead, Kate Bush wrote her own beautiful lyrics, producing this confident, lush meditation on feminine desire and adventure, setting off a kind of chain reaction in the subsequent unveiling of this album. Note the invocation of Irish folk instruments, recalling Bush’s ancestral heritage, in the chorus; note the retention of Bush’s modern dance tendencies from her early days; note the Renaissance garb:
Love and Anger was the third single released from The Sensual World, and became the only song Bush has released thus far that has ever reached number 1 on a US chart, Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks. Were you under the impression, after watching the following video for this classic song, that perhaps Bush was returning to her aforementioned lyrical dance roots, you would be wrong. Watch about halfway through and then ‘Boom’! You get smacked in the face with a totally Eighties freakout:
Along with the album proper, the once-overlooked Deeper Understanding presaged much of early nineties, Internet-induced ennui best summed up by Carmen Hermosillo‘s oft-cited essay “Pandora’s Vox”:
It is fashionable to suggest that cyberspace is some kind of _island of the blessed_ where people are free to indulge and express their Individuality…this is not true….i have seen many people spill their guts on-line, and i did so myself until…i began to see that i had commodified myself… i created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board i was posting to…and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment… [Cyberspace] is a black hole. It absorbs energy and personality and then re-presents it as an emotional spectacle.
Which is to say, even this post that you now read is itself a product created by me, but owned by, in this case, WordPress.org. Listening to the Deeper Understanding, I was harkened back to the strange days of CompuServe, Netscape, Prodigy, and American Online, when self-expression became commodity in those uncharted depths, and I sank deeper into my desk chair and slid further away from my peers, my family: a phenomenon very similar to that which is explored in Spike Jonze’s excruciating Her.
Perhaps unnecessarily, Deeper Understanding was re-released in 2011 on Bush’s Director’s Cut, with vocals of her son placed in the chorus, heavily vocoded and strangely out of tune. The video features a non-plussed Robbie Coltrane, of Harry Potter fame… I suppose it’s a British thing:
Ironically, there are other amazing tunes on this album that need deeper understanding: Between a Man and a Woman, Heads We’re Dancing, Walk Straight Down the Middle, The Fog, Never Be Mine. Often overlooked, these incredible songs that are really more exercises of Bush’s unique talent and vocal abilities. However, I would say that everyone’s perennial favorite, This Woman’s Work, written for John Hughes’s 1988 film She’s Having a Baby, is by far the most well-known Kate Bush song on this album. It may well be the best well known – and most beloved – Bush song of all time. Seen here in its original, heartbreaking conception, you can see why this single stands as something of a high point in Kate Bush’s career.
Written for the film, but Included a year later on The Sensual World, This Woman’s Work was the second single released for this album. It’s a poignant, immaculate, and mature piece that contemporaries such as Madonna or Cyndi Lauper could never dream of emulating.
That said, I feel I need to be honest with you: I was torn on this post, and I’m never torn. Usually I make a decision and push ahead with it even if I’m wrong, confident that I’m doing it with such panache that everyone will just assume I couldn’t possibly be wrong.
I seldom am.
Luckily, one cannot be faulted for a measure of ambivalence in regards to 1978’s The Kick Inside and 1989’s The Sensual World. These two albums are poles apart, each indicative of incredibly different Kates. It’s nearly impossible to compare the two, let alone choose between one of the other. On the one hand you have her incredible debut, The Kick Inside, which features legendary songs such as Wuthering Heights, Them Heavy People, and of course the title track, which always breaks my heart with the following:
Your sister I was born.
You must lose me like an arrow,
Shot into the killer storm.
The Kick Inside will remain as timeless as it is beautiful. What’s more, those songs evince a maturity and depth that is quite rare for a 19 year old at the very beginning of her major label career. On the other hand, you have The Sensual World, penned when Bush was a much more mature 31 year old, having long ago forsaken fantasy rock for songs that were more bookish, more thoughtful, and more contemplative.
In the end, I chose the latter, having paid partial tribute to the former in my write-up of the The Top 3 Kate Bush Albums of All Time: A Love Letter (1 of 3), leaving The Sensual World to be the Second Best. And while words like ‘best’ and ‘worst’ are largely meaningless, and certainly inappropriate, when discussing someone of Kate Bush’s stature and importance in contemporary music, the reader will notice that The Sensual World is not Bush’s best album. For that you must read my next and last installment to this grand love letter to Kate.