Kate Bush’s faerie-goth spirit has always led me to anticipate elliptical lyrics; when I hunker down and listen closely I’m often disarmed by her relative straightforwardness as a writer. I mean, “Wuthering Heights” tells the story of Wuthering Heights more directly than Bronte did (even if that kinda undermines the ingenuity of the novel). And “Running Up That Hill” is really just about swapping orgasms, innit? (Well, maybe not “just.”)
Bush wrote “This Woman’s Work” specifically for the movie She’s Having a Baby–wrote it to correspond with the visuals–and the only way she could have been more less metaphorical about it would be to sing “Kevin Bacon’s in the hallway worried/ Elizabeth McGovern and the baby might die.” Just as Bush makes art out of contract work, she literalizes a timeworn figure of speech with “I know you have a little life in you left” as the woman ejecting that “little life” from her body.
Those same lyrics make, if not more sense, a different and equally valid sense coming from a man, re-emphasizing the father’s helplessness and alienation from this particularly feminine situation. Also, there’s no getting around it–part of the pleasure of Maxwell’s cover is the parlor-trick quality of the feat. It’s fun to hear a virile black dude not so much transform Bush’s ethereal swoop as inhabit it, even preserving some of her intonations.
Granted, Maxwell’s higher register is a bit above-the-waist by classic R&B standards anyway. Often skeptical of his arrangements (fussy), his sense of beauty (non-corporeal), his rhythms (implicit), and his eccentricities (unearned), I can’t deny that his m.o. works here. The contrast in vocals, between the otherworldly falsetto that prevails and the Prince-like middle register into which he drops, makes the song his gorgeous own. Too bad it didn’t spark a trend: Imagine Usher attacking, say, “Army Dreamers.” As it is, “Thie Woman’s Work” stands alongside Futureheads’ “Hounds of Love” as, to my knowledge, the only successful male Kate cover.