Going through these albums chronologically, and in a more analytical context, my main hope was that I was going to get to The Red Shoes with a newfound understanding of the album. That I would gain some fresh insight and as a result appreciate material I had found to be somewhat average Kate Bush a lot more. And the answer to that after six articles and another run of her discography: Maybe. Kind of. Not really.
Make no mistake, Kate’s dulcet tones and song-writing have the alchemy to still make this an enjoyable album, but compared to most of her wonderful oeuvre – including albums that would come after this – many of the rock and orchestral instrumentations on The Red Shoes are pretty ordinary. At the very least not as complex as things on her previous four albums, and to be fair there is context as to why; Kate Bush planned to tour this album, her first tour in ten years, and she wanted a live show that wasn’t bound to the electronic tricks of her last four studio productions. That tour never happened, and if I had to guess some of the imagery used for that show turned up on her short film: The Line, the Cross the Curve.* The album and short both wear their influences openly, even more so than other The Sensual World, in this those influences being the fantastical imagery of the Powell and Pressburger opus and Hans Christian Andersen story that gives the album its name (as well as an album cover impossible to crop properly).
One wouldn’t think they would come to a lacklustre conclusion of this album when first listening to its first track, “Rubberband Girl,” because it starts out so strong. The guitar work, repeating tuned percussion and the stabs of synth would not sound entirely unwelcome in a Peter Gabriel album. Kate’s yells just before the (pretty awesome) guitar solo, and her fluctuating sounds over those horns, are so strange it’s hard not to love.
In fact there are plenty of tracks on here that are a lot strong than I remember, particularly in the first third of this record. “And So is Love” has some really misty flutes and percussion, which create a mood that the guitar licks and Kate’s breathier voice help to emphasise. “Eat the Music” proves that this primarily rock album is not short on musical variety, with a calypso sound and rollicking trumpets that are some of brightest and crispest instruments in this album’s production (more on that later). And “Moments of Pleasure” is nothing short of beautiful, an ode to those Kate Bush has lost, friends and family, with gorgeous images of snow that sow the seeds for an album of this topic 18 years later.
So this sounds like I really like this album, right? Well here is where the album starts to take a turn. “Song of Solomon” has some nice harp/synth combinations, but is marred by the lyrics (“I don’t want your bullshit” is just not something I appreciate coming out of Kate Bush’s mouth). Meanwhile “Lily” (which has the most out-of-nowhere section of The Long the Line and The Curve), has a vocal from Kate that would benefit from being a lot more delicate, but has to keep in the tone of the song’s strong production and as a result can feel like two disparate elements.
But the title track shows much of the cons in terms of this album’s production (even after this album’s remaster, weirdly the only Kate Bush album to have such a treatment). The mandolin and flutes make one feel like getting on their tiptoes – certainly apt to the subject matter and character – but the compression on this track, like on others, muddies all the individual instruments together (Kate has since expressed regret about switching to digital production for this album, with this album containing the most songs on Director’s Cut).
That muddiness is much more obvious on the weaker second half of this album. The electronic percussion mixes in with the choral voices of “Top of The City,” and instead of intensifying Kate Bush’s piano-led fluctuating emotions, they kind of get in the way (though you can hear the delicate bass a lot more in the mix of this track). “Constellation of the Heart” meanwhile sounds like one of those songs that were written as a single but then dropped and is probably the most overproduced song on the album, particularly in the vocals and synths, albeit with a jam-worthy guitar backing.
Although I like Kate’s hysterical vocals on “Big Stripey Lie,” if I’m completely honest whilst writing this I literally had to double check this song because I honestly forgot it existed. And I think the only reason I don’t dislike “Why Should I Love You?” now is because in the intervening years – in some parts because of this Record Club – I’ve become a big fan of Prince. For what it’s worth, he does contribute one mighty fine guitar to the festivities.
As I’ve hated writing these last few paragraphs, I will say that I really do like the climax to this album, “You’re the One.” It is one of the most mature break up songs I have heard, with many delicate and changing emotions throughout the song, and the rock organ gives a ceremonial edge to something that can be seen as so common. The powerful guitar solo/electric piano accompaniment means that The Red Shoes at least ends on a great, climatic note.
But this song, along with “Moments of Pleasure” and the imagery of the telescope to the heart in “Constellation of the Heart” is indicative of the strengths of this album as well as its cons; Kate’s stronger sense of autobiography, particularly in the face of tragedy, gives this album a lot of power. But Kate’s strengths have always been as a poetic storyteller, so as a result of focusing on her personal life she compensates in her storytelling by focusing lots on the archetypes of fantasy. The last time that happened was Lionheart.
I really want to like this album more than I do. All signs indicate to this being an even more personal album for Kate than normal, (particularly the lyrics on “You’re the One” and “Moments of Pleasure”), and the main thing it might have going for it against Lionheart is that there was an attempt at a new aesthetic that discerns it from the rest of her catalogue. There are enough tracks on this album to pick for a playlist, but unlike most of Kate’s discography the combined force of the tracks has barely any accumulative effect.
And such a personal album not being as well received might have been one of many reasons Kate Bush took such a long bow out of the public eye. For twelve years she left the entertainment industry to live a quiet life raising and concentrate on raising her children (certainly a noble reason). There was definitive doubts that she would never release another album again. But, fortunately, she did….
What did you think of the album, though?
Kate Bush Album Rankings
1. Hounds of Love
1. The Dreaming
3. The Sensual World
4. Never for Ever
5. The Kick Inside
7. The Red Shoes
* Short Review: The Line, The Cross and The Curve is for Kate Bush what Runaway was for Kanye West: it acts as a series of music videos; does not have every full song for some reason; is based around a fantastical framing device and is the perfect representation of what I would guess is each creator’s psyche. Though I would probably call this more coherent and penetrable than Runaway, conversely The Red Shoes is not Kate Bush’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. That is the end of this analogy.
(It also has Miranda Richardson wonderfully hamming it up with her Irish accent from The Crying Game! Believe me, I wish I had more time to actually review this.)