Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow review

Posted December 12, 2011 in

Performing one of the year’s greatest musical achievements—releasing not one but two varied and nearly perfect records—would be daunting for any artist, but when that artist is Kate Bush (who took a six year break between 2005’s Aerial and 2011’s first opus, Director’s Cut and twelve years between albums before that) the announcement of a second release within six months seemed nearly to good to be true. But when the exuberant and delightfully experimental “Wild Man” digital single debuted in October, and as the details of 50 Words for Snow were tantalizingly revealed (magical promo shots, track lists, guest vocalists) this dream notion was very much a reality. So much has already been written about this album’s great strengths, and even if you streamed it in its entirety endlessly on NPR or other online sources, hopefully my many more than just 50 words about it will help convince you to buy a copy.

The mere idea of only seven tracks initially made this project sound like an EP, but clocking in over an hour and with most of its tracks stretching beyond seven minutes each, the enticement is how magically insular of musical trends and formulas the album is. Repeated listens reveal it to be like a charming miniature world captured inside a perpetually shaken snow globe. Far from being a Christmas album (although the word is mentioned once) or even just a seasonal album, the concept of the white stuff is simply what connects Bush’s musical narratives together: from the first delicate refrains of “Snowflake” to the etherial longing of album closer “Among Angels,” the magic of snow in various physical forms or sometimes just feelings about it is continually evoked.

Opener “Snowflake” reveals the first musical trick producer extraordinaire Bush pulls out of her vast oeuvre: she leaves the lead vocal duties to son Albert ‘Bertie’ McIntosh, and his clear, prepubescent voice is as crystalline as the title character he plays. Of course this isn’t his first appearance on his mother’s music, having debuted as the “Sun” on Aerial and the computer’s voice on the Director’s Cut brilliant reworking of “Deeper Understanding.” But never has his voice appeared so freely and raw before now, as it cascades from the cloud he was born from down to the earth, Bush observes how “the world is so loud” and he responds “be ready to catch me.” Minimal instrumentation works in perfect harmony to compliment the two voices and the result is phenomenal. The freedom of not restricting this or holding any of the tracks to a time-constrained formula is one of the reasons this album is so effectively different.

“Lake Tahoe” has a story-song narrative and likewise features guest vocalists, including a gorgeous chorale turn from Stefan Roberts. The lady in the lake’s title is actually a Victorian ghost in search of her dog “Snowflake,” and during my first few listens its initial darkness was a bit distracting to me, but like many of Bush’s wondrous tracks, repeat listens have revealed a deeper brilliance and actually recalls the still-startling drowning concept themes explored first on her 1985 masterpiece, Hounds of Love. Its glorious eleven minute running time helps make it one of the most complex and pretty songs here.

But nothing prepares you for one of her greatest tours de force, the 13 and a half minute opus “Misty.” With her keys immediately conjuring up Peanuts and especially A Charlie Brown Christmas (with an obvious nod to Vince Guaraldi) this epic track is literally about a woman having a relationship with a snowman. Erotic, evocatively sensual and ultimately sad, it is something to behold the narrator recalling kissing “his ice-cream lips” and his “snowy white arms” chilling her, even as she “can feel him melting in my hand.” By turns saucy, adult and reflective, it is also devastatingly beautiful and I personally can’t think of another artist writing today who could come up with such a unique concept, let alone execute it with the élan as Bush does here.

Then again this isn’t such a surprise—as she remains one of the most creative singer-songwriters ever—as witnessed in the sheer thrill that is “Wild Man,” which is an ode to the mythical creature the Yeti, AKA the Abominable Snowman. Recalling the notion of her earlier, greatly experimental songwriting, its Himalayan climbers—including guest vocalist Andy Fairweather Low—find evidence of it from its “footprints in the snow,” while lamenting that men would want to hunt it down and kill it. Bush urges it to “run away, run away” while covering up evidence of its existence, even as she sympathizes with its lonely cries. There is a lovely and subtle harmony refrain that is hummed which helps to further burrow the melody into the listener’s brain. It is easy to see why this was chosen as the lead track from the album, and even more impressive is that it doesn’t follow any present musical trends, but instead sets its own.

This is not to say there is not a traditional song or two on the album, the first of which is the Elton John guested “Snowed In At Wheeler Street.” Perhaps because this is a Kate Bush album, this isn’t a traditional love ballad, but rather a time-traveling tale of ill-fated lovers. As a lifelong hero of Bush’s, Sir Elton’s performance here is full of grand emotion and intrigue, and nearly eradicates his media rants as of late. The pair travels through the burning of Rome, war-torn Nazi Germany, and even more touchingly, through the 9/11 attacks in New York. Bush the producer, ever surprising us, makes herself sound simply enchanting singing alongside her musical idol.

Truly the most intriguing guest vocal on the whole project is a spoken-word turn from actor Stephen Fry on the album’s hypnotic title track. Billed as “Professor Joseph Yupick,” his masterful voice recites Bush’s 50 comical descriptions for the white stuff with a scholarly diction. Having hurt my own ankle the week I received the promo, I am partial to number 21, “anklebreaker,” but also love “blackbird braille,” “psychohail,” and “bad for trains.” Just as playful as it is catchy, the track finds Bush playing two roles: that of a seductively-voiced narrator counting the numerical spaces from one on, and also that of a comical foil to Fry, urging, “don’t you know it’s not just the Eskimo, let me hear your 50 words for snow.” The inside joke is, of course, that Eskimos don’t really have their rumored 50 words for snow, which just adds to the air of silliness and fun the track evokes.

The other more traditional track is also the project’s most lovely: the ballad “Among Angels.” With very subtle orchestration backing her, it is simply Bush and her piano, the first key strokes of which almost sound as though we are eavesdropping on her. And though arguably one of the more random and abstract interpretations of the “snow” concept, its profoundly moving lyrics and delicate delivery also make it one of her prettiest compositions ever. “Rest your weary world in their hands/Lay your broken laugh at their feet,” she gently sings, and rivals her own “This Woman’s Work,” and even Aerial’s “A Coral Room” in both lyrical depth and emotion, which is quite an achievement. But really this isn’t surprising, as this is perhaps what Bush does best: she makes you feel the music.

The album is also—not surprisingly—something of a family affair as both her son and her husband, guitarist Danny McIntosh, appear. Also making a return appearance is the wondrous drumming of Steve Gadd, the great bass of John Giblin and her longtime compatriot Del Palmer, who both plays on and recorded the album. Of all the great and famous male voices featured, it truly is her son Bertie’s that leaves the most lasting impact. The album’s packaging is, like Director’s Cut before it, stunning to behold. Online photos simply cannot do justice to the glossy elegance of holding the product in one’s hands. Each song is represented both lyrically and visually with a delicate snow etching, and showcases a splendid use of black, white and grays. Even her recent Fish People logo is created in an etching.

The album was released worldwide on Bush’s own Fish People label on CD, double vinyl and digitally on November 21st, and exclusively on ANTI- Records in the US.