Music Reviews
50 Words For Snow

Kate Bush 50 Words For Snow

(Fish People) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

A new album by Kate Bush always comes laden with an almost intolerable weight of expectation. In the 12 years that separated The Red Shoes (1993) and Aerial (2005), Bush’s mystique and reputation as some sort of maverick in self-induced exile grew to massive proportions. In fact Bush had taken the time out to focus on bringing up her son, and fair play to her. In the end Aerial was a good album, with moments of true beauty that deserve their place in the top tier of Bush songs, but it was also too long by at least three or four songs (most of those on disc one); and probably not worth a wait of 12 years.

It’s been six years since then but bizarrely it seems only like it was a couple of years ago, so used have we become to the interminable hiatus between albums. And to confound expectations (something Bush seemingly delights in), in 2011 we have not one but two new albums. The first, Director’s Cut, served as a kind of teaser campaign, reworking songs already recorded on The Sensual World and The Red Shoes. That album was an unexpected delight, imbuing familiar songs with a new dimension, but it also felt like a stop-gap. At the time of its release there were hints that Kate had been working on some all-new material, but nothing was confirmed. It turns out that she had indeed been hard at work honing a new set of songs, at the same time as rejigging the Director’s Cut material.

50 Words For Snow is the result, and it’s as beguiling and intriguing an album as Bush has released. A ‘concept’ album (if you will) on the subject of the white stuff, it starts with a suite of three extraordinary, piano-led songs. The first of these, Snowflake, begins with the lines “I was born in a cloud. Now I am falling... sung by Albert McIntosh (Kate’s son, Bertie), taking on the character of the eponymous snowflake as it falls to earth. The music is a perfect context for these words, with Kate’s piano providing a beautifully simple descending melody that swirls slowly throughout the track, its repetitive motif mesmerising and haunting. Lake Tahoe tells the tale of a woman drowned in an icy lake, haunting its dark waters, the song building on layers of rolling percussion. The third track in the sequence, Misty, is the album’s centrepiece. It’s a 13 minute tour de force of restrained sensual ambience. The song is about a tryst between a snowman (stay with me on this) and the narrator. “So cold next to me/I can feel him melting in my hand. The song contains some of Kate’s most overtly sexual imagery, but it refrains from being corny on the strength of the atmosphere created by the music. The rolling piano refrain, the intermittent interventions of understated guitar and most of all the lightly jazzy drums of Steve Gadd are reminiscent of Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden, or even Talk Talk main man Mark Hollis’ eponymous solo album. This opening sequence of songs is in itself a masterpiece, one of the finest things Bush has recorded.

After this opening, Wild Man seems almost workmanlike. In fact in isolation it’s a pretty decent track, if a little polite sonically. Snowed In At Wheeler Street is a disappointment, a tale of two immortal lovers who meet at various points in history, the second lover’s part sung by Elton John, whose gruff intonation should provide a foil for Kate's higher register. In fact his voice is more of a distraction, as he cannot help but add in a few of his trademark histrionics. The album’s title track brings proceedings back to the sublime, with Stephen Fry intoning 50 words for snow, some real, most made up. Kate counts him down in her backing vocal, while Steve Gadd gives the track a rolling impetus. It’s the kind of song only Kate could get away with, like π from Aerial. Finally Among Angels returns to the iciness of the album’s beginning, just Kate at the piano, rounding things off with a suitably chill and stripped arrangement, its spatial quality reminiscent of something on the ECM label.

If  every song here had been of the same standard as the opening suite of three, and the final two, 50 Words For Snow would have been an all-time classic, to be considered in the same breath as Hounds Of Love. As it is, Wild Man and Snowed In... make it a second tier Kate Bush album, but only just. It’s the work of a mature and serious artist, who has made a unique and lasting contribution to pop, and this album will continue her reputation. Will we have to wait so long for the next installment?