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Kate Bush - The Red Shoes Music Album Reviews

An outlier in Kate Bush’s catalog, her seventh album from 1993 finds an effortless perfectionist pushing very hard to locate her next great idea.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Red Shoes,” a woman slips on some shiny footwear and suddenly can’t stop dancing. It’s all a bit of fun until she’s prancing across graveyards in the middle of the night, panicked enough to force an executioner to chop off her crimson-clad feet in hopes of breaking the spell. British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger took that story and made it into a meta masterpiece with their 1948 movie The Red Shoes. It centers around a phantasmagoric ballet that translates Andersen’s tale, but the film also depicts the backstage plight of its principal dancer. “You cannot have it both ways,” a mad genius ballet director tells her. “A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer.” In the end, forced to choose between great passions, she puts on those ruby slippers one more time—and jumps in front of a moving train. The Red Shoes, in all its beauty and tragedy, in its impossible decisions concerning art and life, is one of Kate Bush’s favorite films. She named her seventh album after it.

When Bush’s The Red Shoes was released in November 1993, the 35-year-old singer was reeling. Her mother had passed the previous year. Her romantic relationship with close musical collaborator Del Palmer, who had known her since she was a teenager, was ending. And after spending her entire adult life obsessively cultivating her fantasies into reality through sound and image, she was wary of being swept away by her work. “I’m feeling very tired,” she said at the time. “I’m going on a holiday. I’m really looking forward to not pleasing anyone but myself.” This was no idle threat. Her next album would not arrive for another 12 years.

But The Red Shoes has her once again doing everything: singing and dancing, writing and producing. The record was presented alongside a 45-minute short film called The Line, the Cross & the Curve that Bush directed, wrote, and starred in. It’s a little much: The Line is woefully underdeveloped as it stitches together a string of repetitive music videos via a cockamamie plot inspired by Powell’s The Red Shoes but without a trace of that movie’s lush panache. (In 2005, Bush herself called the chintzy visual “a load of bollocks.”)

The album fares better. It doesn’t rank among Bush’s finest—it sounds more prototypically ’80s than some of the records she actually released that decade, marked by big snares and a brittle sound that a recent remaster can’t properly remedy. It’s an outlier, but hardly a disaster. The Red Shoes finds an effortless perfectionist pushing very hard to locate her next great idea.

The album’s musical unwieldiness is set against Bush’s relatively diaristic songwriting.The Red Shoes is the most confessional album by an artist not known for, or especially interested in, confession. Bush has always taken advantage of the elusive space between art and reality, conjuring characters, rarely doing interviews, always aware of getting burned by a lingering spotlight. “That’s what all art’s about—a sense of moving away from boundaries that you can’t, in real life,” she said around the time of The Red Shoes. “It’s all make believe, really.” The album falters when she falls short of this magical realism. When it comes to her songwriting, Kate Bush’s stories are almost always more engrossing than Kate Bush.

The record’s personal themes of loss, perseverance, and memory coalesce on “Moments of Pleasure,” one of Bush’s most affecting ballads. She sings of the small memories of life—laughing at dumb jokes, snowy evenings high above New York City, a piece of wisdom from her mother—as Oscar-nominated composer Michael Kamen builds these quiet moments into monuments with a heroic string arrangement. Bush ends the song with a series of mini eulogies: for her aunt, her longtime guitarist, her dance partner. “Just being alive, it can really hurt,” she belts at the center of the track, stating the obvious with such conviction that it sounds revelatory.

But sometimes, the obviousness of these songs and sentiments can feel too familiar. Bush stacks up plainspoken laments of heartbreak on “And So Is Love,” backed by a ponderous instrumental that only adds to the staleness; the presence of Eric Clapton—one of a number of big-name guitarists who guest on the album—and his scrunch-faced blues licks does not help. Closer “You’re the One” is a better breakup song, though similarly and uncharacteristically rote. It’s fun to hear the fanciful teller of tales attempt kiss-off lines like “I’m going to stay with my friend/Mmm, yes, he’s very good-looking,” but the song’s near-six-minute runtime, superfluous implementation of the Bulgarian vocal group Trio Bulgarka (who were used to much better effect on her previous album, 1989’s The Sensual World), and unnecessary guitar riffage, this time from Jeff Beck, turn it into a tepid slog.

There’s a grab-bag quality to the album, one that runs contrary to the more conceptual flourishes that show up on some of Bush’s most beloved work, like 1985’s Hounds of Love. This looser, more scattershot method doesn’t totally suit her. She admits as much on the record’s opening track, “Rubberband Girl,” a brash trifle where she longs to be as flexible as a tree, to be able to bounce around and bounce back. And the album’s strangest track, “Big Stripey Lie,” is an angsty, tuneless wreck that sounds like Bush trying—and failing—to take on the industrial and grunge sounds of the early ’90s. The song marked the first time Bush ever played guitar on an album; tellingly, to this day, it’s also the last time she ever played guitar on an album. Elsewhere, there are African rhythms, Celtic stomps, and even some bulbous funk. Before the album’s release, Bush said that The Red Shoes’ more freewheeling approach was meant to coincide with a subsequent live tour, which would have been her first since 1979. The shows never happened.

The penultimate song, “Why Should I Love You?,” took a particularly winding route to completion that speaks to the record’s uncertain process. It was originally conceived by Bush as a winning, slow-motion ballad about the inexplicability of fate and feeling. But then, in hopes of collaboration, she sent tapes of her early version to Prince, who mailed back a drastic revamp that Prince’s own engineer later called “lame disco.” What ended up on The Red Shoes is a disjointed amalgam of the two, a collaboration between two of pop’s most ingenious minds turned into a garish missed opportunity.

Mercifully, Bush’s demo of the song found its way online years later, and the singer also took it upon herself to offer pared-down remakes of several tracks from The Red Shoes on her 2011 project Director’s Cut. These alternate, largely superior takes reveal that the songwriting on much of The Red Shoes is worthy of Bush’s reputation. But, in the early ’90s, as she struggled to balance human comforts with her grand pursuit of art, she cluttered her ideas. In the nearly 26 years since The Red Shoes came out, Bush raised her only child and released two rich and spacious albums of new material. From The Red Shoes’ moment of imbalance, a harmonious new equilibrium was set.

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