unCOVERed: “This Woman’s Work” Featuring Kate Bush VS. Maxwell
by Matthew Allen
“Ah-haaa-ooooooh:” a soaring word-less cry that can convey sorrow and anguish atop an icy and bleak melody. You know the outcome can’t be good from the song’s first 20 seconds, but you’re invested in the journey and it’s too late to turn back. “This Woman’s Work” is a swelling, emotional ebb and flow, depicting the inner monologue of a man in distress over his wife dying in childbirth. It’s a singular sentiment used in a record and with sparse instrumentation, isn’t affectively executed without a thoughtful and dynamic vocalist. The fact that not one but two singers were able to do just that is incredibly remarkable; Kath Bush, the author of the song, and Maxwell, who garnered a Top 20 R&B hit with it. Which one is the best? With soulhead, the topic will be unCOVERed.
Kate Bush, 1989
Kate Bush, a British chanteuse and songwriter accumulated three platinum albums in the United Kingdom since her 1978 debut. She made her first splash in America in 1985 with her Top 30 single, “Running up That Hill.” In 1989, she wrote “This Woman’s Work” for the Kevin Bacon film “She’s Having a Baby,” specifically to be played during a climactic scene in which his wife was giving birth and he’s hit with the news that she and the child may not make it. Singing from the perspective of the man’s inner thoughts, her vocals are simple, yet theatric, with the drama building as the piano notes get heavier and backing vocals swirl around the lamenting; “All the things we should’ve said that I never said/all the things we should’ve done that I never did.” You could hear the regrets and stress was piling up rapidly inside the mind, until everything drops out as she sings, “Make it go away.” In addition to helping the film, it was a top 30 UK single for her album The Sensual World.
Brooklyn born Maxwell Rivera had only come into our lives suddenly when he first sang this tune. In 1996, he dropped his long-in-the-making debut album, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, a sophisticated story of sensuality, sincerity and sensitivity. Songs like “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)” and “Sumthin’ Sumthin'” helped him become an instant household name, sex symbol and pioneer of the bubbling “neo-soul” movement. Months later, he taped an episode of MTV Unplugged in Brooklyn, reimagining top cuts from the LP. The standout song in the set, however, was a cover of this song by Kate Bush – whom he called “the bomb” for some of the uninformed audience members. His rendition replaced the opening piano with stiff plucks of a harp and he recreated Bush’s lilting, keening three syllable cry angelically. His falsetto, usually used to express eroticism and romance, was now the somber thoughts of a man trying to will his love away from death: “I know you have a little life in you, yet/I know you have a lot of strength left.” Aside receiving a standing ovation, it became a fan favorite, prompting him to re-record it for his platinum selling 2001 album Now. Like Bush’s version, it was also used in films, like “Love and Basketball,” and “Stomp the Yard.”
The emotion first ignited by Bush is palpable. Her enunciation and diction helped explain the dire situation to the listener, while Maxwell’s vocal bends was enough to let convey the message. It can’t be ignored that Bush’s rendition was used in proper context outside of the album within the film, “She’s Having My Baby,” rather than Maxwell’s, whose version was used in a love scene in “Love and Basketball,” inappropriately turning the ultimate anti-ballad into a slow jam. In the end, the lush instrumentation of the MTV Unplugged taping with the harp, string quartet and Maxwell’s operatic showing gives his version the win.
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based music journalist and television producer. In addition to soulhead, his work can be found on EBONY, JET and Wax Poetics Magazines. To keep up with his work, follow him on Twitter and visit his blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict. Check out some of his work for soulhead.