||50 Words For Snow
||21 November 2011
||Fish People, EMI
||Art rock, alternative rock
Never has winter felt so warm.
The elusive Kate Bush returns for the second time this year. The re-imaginings on Director’s Cut whetted the appetite for 50 Words For Snow, her first original material since 2005’s Aerial. The wait has been worth it.
This time around she drapes herself in the coattails of an ice queen that could melt the heart. The new album is a winter concept affair but before you run for the hills there is none of the usual Christmas stocking filler feel on this beautifully evocative collection. The Kent native has cultivated atmospheric songs that feel out of time and space with modernity and are all the better for it.
The only discernible influences on the singer-songwriter are herself and her lifelong themes of gothic romanticism, mysticism and personification of objects. She doesn’t listen to much contemporary music by the by, she doesn’t copy a trend and most importantly she’s not afraid to walk a musical path that may be perceived as old hat or even corny. Most of the time she’s spot on and happily this is the case on this selection.
The album is strong on narrative from the journey of a 'Snowflake' on the opening track to the lady of the lake imagery in search of her dog on 'Lake Tahoe'. Both songs are embroidered with minimalist impressionistic piano that allows Bush to glide her voice and lyrics softly yet directly into the hearts and minds of the listener. The songs’ classical structure is something that harks back to the more solemn tracks on Hounds of Love like 'Mother' and 'Hello Earth'. 'Lake Tahoe's opening straddles an operatic choral part with the soft flecks of the ivory that dominates the musical base of the album. Bush’s voice is full of experience and as on Director’s Cut, is huskier and deeper than ever before without losing its childlike scattery tone.
The key song in the set is 'Misty' which again furnishes a traditional love-loss storyline albeit quirky in characters. The narrator falls in love spiritually and physically with a snowman to tragic consequences when she loses him to the melting sun. This of course could be quite ridiculous but metaphorical and tonally Bush is able to bring across sensuality and pathos in equal measure.
"...the sheets are soaking....I can’t find him..."
The crescendo of loss and quiet desperation is heartbreaking while the singer’s bewitching voice and inflections guide us to the inevitable end.
The album’s single 'Wildman' mightn’t trouble the airwaves much but it’s the most uplifting song so far with its almost oriental/Nepalese musicality and rousing chorus. Again we are buried deep in the snow, this time in search of the Yeti or abominable snowman. Bush’s husky voice has a sultry tone to it as she creepily sings, "they want to know you...they will hunt you down, then they will kill you/run away, run away, run away".
Not one to shy away from odd duets and cameos, Bush teams up with two well known and widely differing figures on the next couple of tracks. Firstly she trades vocals with her childhood idol Elton John on 'Snowed In At Wheeler St.' The much reviled/revered showman of pop is in muscular power ballad mode on this track. It really should have been quite cheesy but Bush’s strange time travel love narrative just about lends itself to being sweet. The shimmering keyboards, reminiscent from 'Aerial', adds to the elegiac quality of the track.
"When we got to the top of the hill, we saw Rome burn"
Stephan Fry lends his dulcet tones to the title track that does exactly what it says on the tin. Although the musical backing and Bush’s chorus has a magical driven quality I for one could have stopped listening at about twenty Inuit words for snow or ‘Ankle breaker’ to name just one on the bloody long list. This may be the only wrong turn on the album but in fairness what could we expect from Bush but another detour into her wild and expansive imagination.
The closer 'Among Angels' is a delicate grand piano number that sums up the magical melancholy and wrapped up in blanket warmth that permeates throughout the collection. This is a perfectly downbeat/upbeat way to end such a beautifully solemn yet cathartic album.
50 Words For Snow will be considered in years to come up there near the best of Kate Bush’s repertoire and is already one of the finest winter albums I’ve ever heard. At sixty-five minutes the scope of sustained feeling and atmosphere would be astonishing from any artist however it’s all the better from someone who has been around for decades yet refuses to compromise her vision in the face of the diminishing concentration levels of the iPod generation. Welcome back Ms. Bush, just don’t wait another six years to grace us with your beguiling presence.
- Tim Gannon