Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Pop Lit 101 – The Sensual World on Bloomsday

For the title track of The Sensual World, Kate Bush planned to take Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from James Joyce’s Ulysses, a sublime un-punctuated mess of text, and put it to music. Unable to secure the rights from the Joyce estate, Bush wrote her own version of Molly’s soliloquy, incorporating elements of the original text while creating something uniquely her own. In 2011, the Joyce estate finally granted Bush’s request, and she recorded an alternate version for the Director’s Cut LP that quotes Ulysses verbatim.

The track is rhythmically punctuated by Bush singing, “Mmm, yes,” evoking Molly Bloom’s repetition of the word near the end of the book. Adorning these words, Davy Spillane plays the uilleann pipes, a traditional Irish instrument, the melody adapted from a Macedonian dance. By recontextualizing language in song, Bush gives form to formless text, the music creating the track’s punctuation and grammar and in this way, Molly is able to step “out of the page into the sensual world.” Those who have actually read Ulysses (there may be hundreds of them) are able to create a music in their heads that does exactly what Bush has done. In reality, Joyce’s lack of punctuation, relying instead on flow, is rather easily remedied by simply reading as one speaks.

For those who need more background, today is Bloomsday, the day when the 24 hours of Ulysses takes place. Based on the number of words that people speak on average, Ulysses is told over one day in 1904 (the day of Joyce and Nora Barnacle’s first date), now celebrated as Bloomsday. It was Joyce’s intention for the novel to have Homeric parallels and Molly, the wife of Leopold Bloom, represents Penelope.
Unlike her mythical counterpart, Molly is having an adulterous affair with Hugh ‘Blazes’ Boylan after ten years of celibacy. Her celebrated internal monologue, which concludes the novel, takes the form of eight enormous “sentences,” with only two marks of punctuation in the episode. Molly accepts Leopold into her bed, frets about his health, and then reminisces about their first meeting and her first feelings of love for him. The episode both begins and ends with “yes”, a word that Joyce described as “the female word.” Earlier, Leopold had been having a cheese sandwich and glass of Burgundy in Davey Byrne’s pub and thinking of the moment in the spring or summer of 1888 when Molly agreed to marry him, among the ferns and rhododendrons on Howth Head with just a comical nanny-goat to witness it. This deeply romantic reminiscence, parts of which recur several times in Ulysses, includes the description of Molly passing the warm and chewed seed cake from her mouth to his. Their love, at least sixteen years before, was passionate, erotic and vital.
The song opens with the sound of church bells, perhaps echoing Leopold’s proposal to Molly on Howth Head. Of it, Kate said, “I’ve got a thing about the sound of bells. It’s one of those fantastic sounds: a sound of celebration. They’re used to mark points in life; births, weddings, deaths, but they give this tremendous feeling of celebration. In the original speech Molly’s talking of the time when Leopold proposed to her, and I just had the image of bells, this image of them sitting on the hillside with the sound of bells in the distance. In hindsight I also think it’s a lovely way to start an album. A feeling of celebration that puts me on a hillside somewhere on a sunny afternoon.”
“The Molly Bloom of Joyce's soliloquy escapes the confines of his text, ‘stepping out of the page into the sensual world,’ to enjoy the ‘down of a peach,’ the ‘kiss of seedcake,’ to ‘wear a sunset,’ where bodies roll ‘off of Howth Head and into the flesh.’ Kate described the album as her first to really explore "positive female energy" – "I think it's to do with me coming to terms with myself on different levels," she told NME. "In some ways, like on Hounds Of Love, it was important for me to get across the sense of power in the songs that I'd associated with male energy and music. But I didn't feel that this time and I was very much wanting to express myself as a woman in my music rather than as a woman wanting to sound as powerful as a man. And definitely 'The Sensual World', the track, was very much a female track for me. I felt it was a really new expression, feeling good about being a woman musically".

Kate Bush was thirty-one when the single came out, and it has been thirty-one years since the track’s release.

Here's my video for Bloomsday:

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