50 Words for Snow – the very idea is excessive, superfluous, even ridiculous, but this is precisely the kind of material from which only Kate Bush can create a masterpiece. As seven songs slowly unfurl for over an hour on the topic, the listener is left only with a strengthened sense of Bush’s uncanny ability to form an inhabitable world in an album.
2011 has been an unusually active year for the artist: after 6 years of silence following Aerial, this year has seen two new records, although the reworkings on Director’s Cut seem very much a prelude to the stunning development of 50 Words for Snow. The prolonged breaks between albums are well-known and oft-mourned, but here the gap seems fitting to a deeply contemplative set of songs, with Bush displaying a new appreciation for patient and reserved gracefulness.
This is manifest immediately on opener ‘Snowflake’, as tentative flutters of piano combine with the muffled rumble of percussion in a fragile and tender duet with Bush’s 13 year-old son. The track is built around space as silent as the snowfall it describes, eschewing climactic crescendo for a hushed beauty all the more resonant for its subtlety. Kate’s son, Bertie, takes the lead with a delicate soprano that is oddly reminiscent of his mother’s vocal flights twenty years ago; the contrast between the pair highlights how Bush’s voice has aged, taking on deeper, huskier tones that work to soften some of the icier textures here.
‘Snowflake’ marks the first of several duets on the album, which features guests as diverse as Elton John and Stephen Fry. It is these figures who will perhaps prove the record’s most divisive features, with Elton’s melodramatic vocal on ‘Snowed In At Wheeler Street’ in particular inviting raised eyebrows. Whilst not the record’s high point, the strength of Bush’s writing and the powerfully emotional tale of lovers who are constantly held apart lend gravity to a performance that could easily have veered into nauseatingly sentimental territory, as the pair cry “I don’t want to lose you again.”
It’s the one moment on 50 Words for Snow that threatens the pensive atmosphere, but its brash emotional directness serves as a welcome reminder of the songwriter’s lauded ability to juggle the sublime and the ridiculous. The title track is another case of Kate’s irrepressible whimsy, as Stephen Fry enunciates 50 words for snow with tangible relish, from the delightful “blackbird Braille” to the more perplexing “bad for trains.” Provided with the album’s most propulsive music in the form of pacy, jazz-inflected rhythm section and reverberating swirls of guitar, the song takes a static, inexplicable idea and becomes an exciting journey guided by the ice-queen presence of Bush’s commanding countdown.
Lyrical playfulness is second nature for Bush, but 50 Words for Snow achieves cohesiveness across its seven tracks between even the most disparate ideas. It is a landscape populated by lost figures: the “lonely” Yeti of ‘Wild Man,’ the vanishing snowman of ‘Misty,’ the woman’s spirit crying out for her dog on ‘Lake Tahoe.’ For all of its light-heartedness, the title track’s endless synonyms point to the ephemeral fragility of snow that the record explores throughout: nothing here can be pinned down, as lovers have to separate, the animated snowman melts and the snowflake given voice on the opener proves impossible to find. The frozen landscape, for all its beauty, is harsh; it separates, confounds and ultimately disappears as quietly as it came.
‘Misty’ yields at once the most jarring and touching lyrical turn here, with Bush narrating a surprisingly sensual one-night stand with a snowman. This lengthy, dense story never loses its thread of genuine emotion; Kate’s passionate and yearning delivery of lines like “I can feel him melting in my hands” and “the sheets are soaking” replaces potential humour with blunt sexuality that becomes sad desperation as it evaporates.
As the album closes with the plaintive, twinkling wonder of ‘Among Angels,’ it’s evident that whilst Bush never fails to surprise, it is not longer a top priority. 50 Words for Snow is the work of a consummate artist who can simultaneously engage with her inherent whimsy and divorce herself from it, producing something both otherworldly and disarmingly, invitingly human.