Kate Bush – The Red Shoes
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Kate Bush—recording a pop album. The time was certainly right. That Hounds of Love actually peaked at #30 in the Billboard album chart remains, along with Billy Ocean scoring three chart toppers, one of the most delightful flukes of the ‘80s. 1989’s The Sensual World was certified gold, its single “Love and Anger” actually getting substantial MTV and college radio play. It was a splendid introduction to Bush: a dervish of an arrangement, with all manner of exotic doohickeys and Bush’s voice and piano competing for attention, a smidgen weirder than the poignant Peter Gabriel duet “Don’t Give Up.”
Although its release followed Bush’s usual pattern of hibernal productivity, The Red Shoes had the misfortune of entering a landscape about to become as monochromatic as the pop charts. The fall of 1993 was an odd time for veteran alt-rockers—the last time deejays would tolerate the schizophrenic programming of yore until the end of the Clinton administration. A quick scan of the songs I recorded off my local college radio station is indicative: pestilential grunge by Pearl Jam and Jesus Lizard, Suede’s “My Insatiable One,” tracks by the newly solo singer of a Icelandic band called the Sugarcubes, and the Pet Shop Boys’ “Can You Forgive Her?” In this context Kate Bush’s “Eat the Music” was like U2’s “Lemon”—the boy at the party with smeared makeup, drunk and warbling off-key, but friendly with a couple of the hosts and thus tolerated. But not invited back.
Attenuated, enfeebled by lousy sequencing, The Red Shoes collects Bush’s reading and listening habits since 1989: Bryan Adams (“Moments of Pleasure”), the Spinners (“Rubberband Girl”), the Old Testament (“Song of Solomon”), the Archers’ baroque, hysterical ballet (the title track). Prince is in there too; alas, it’s Lovesexy-era Prince (“Why Should I Love You?”). Tempos and moods, especially in the second third, emulate the “adult” tracks on The Sensual World; “maturity” is signified by the reliance on piano and the near-total absence of Bush’s multitracked vocal swoops, which from Never for Ever onwards undercut, necessarily, the assertiveness of the first-person pronoun (artists assume that irony is a privilege of the young). Thankfully there are enough hints that this woman is still apt to take her shoes off and throw them in the lake; too bad a lyric like “Don’t want your bullshit, yeah / Just want your sexuality” (“The Song of Solomon”), adrift in Trio Bulgarka tinkle and sung in a girlish coo, can’t thrill.
Still, Bush understands that bullshit and sexuality make for a stupid polarity. What can be more bullshit than Jeff Beck? Or Eric Clapton? Yet here they are, punctuating the anonymous balladry of “You’re the One” and “And So Is Love” respectively, and they’re damn sexy (Clapton’s scabrous fills here turn Unplugged into the aural equivalent of a used condom). “Rubberband Girl” is a simply wonderful single, one of her best, a pop recontexualization of the previous decade’s experiments with vocal distortion; here, with protean glee, she turns herself into a rubberband on the chorus, while an insistent rhythm guitar and percussion figure go round and round. Bush herself plays bass and impressive distorto-guitar on “Big Stripey Lie,” the one track on which her sexuality, front and center, finds its unhinged correlative in the arrangements; in the mad violins and Bush’s rumbling lower register mouthing “Oh God, it’s a jungle in here,” we hear a mournful echo of The Dreaming’s psychosexual exorcism “Get Out of My House.” On “Eat the Music” she compares herself to a pomegranate, split open with devotion, as a Fairlight sample of brother Paddy Bush lustily cheers his sis (how’s that for devotion?).
The standard line by journalists is that The Red Shoes collected the debris of a failed concept album based on the Archers film to which I alluded earlier. The ballet is a rather ponderous hunk of kitsch, its sexuality less brazen than Bush’s. Still, I can see the parallels. Bush has never been leery of kitsch: it’s her muse, the starting point of genuine emotion and ideas few of her art-rock contemporaries have taken seriously. The rhythm of ballet—alternately graceful and plodding—informs the most uneven of her studio albums. 2005’s Aerial would mitigate the enforced maturity of marriage and motherhood with the third-person narrative of one disc and the Woolfian rapture of the other. In 1993, however, Bush was unwilling to separate these tendencies; she needed to risk kitsch. This makes her braver than most.