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Kate Bush - 50 Words For Snow CD (album) cover


Kate Bush


Crossover Prog

3.79 | 167 ratings

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4 stars A return to form...her best since The Dreaming

I hate when reviewers used the old "best work since....." line but this is one of the few cases it seems appropriate. After releasing four of the most stunning and fantastic albums in rock history, including two masterpieces (The Kick Inside and The Dreaming), a light in Bush's eyes simply went out. In the period between Dreaming and Hounds, a certain giddy spark of the youthful artist dimmed. A different kind of sadness would creep in, and the reliably open performer with "wow" in her eyes and heart would retreat. The reasons for this, which are personal and perfectly legitimate, are not important at this point but can be felt in the work. And I would submit that spark was crucial in Bush's finest work. Those first four album have pure magic in their veins, filled with total, out-of-this-world creativity and passion. After The Dreaming, she retreated a bit, tired of fame and interviews and the business, and eventually losing some people close to her.

While many will hate me for saying this the slide began with Hounds. The Ninth Wave saves the album and is very impressive, but side one sounds pretty forgettable these days. The tracks can be catchy but they are missing something. Then came Sensual World and The Red Shoes, both which feature some nice songs but again, are relative husks of what was happening a decade prior. Finally, the comeback Aerial was a disaster, a lifeless bore in my opinion. I can remember my profound disappointment with that album and over time my appreciation has grown very little. So when a friend sent me the link to stream Bush's latest I went to listen with all the enthusiasm of a dental visit. That first spin did little for me but I was intrigued enough to purchase the album anyway. I'm happy to report that Kate has rediscovered the magic this time. Of course it is different than the magic of the first four albums, more mature, more world-weary, but it is there. Bush as much as confirms the "come full circle" feel of this in a November 2011 interview saying she hasn't been this proud of an album since her first one, and that it felt like the beginning of a new era for her, while Director's Cut felt like the closure of an era.

"50 Words for Snow" is officially presented as "stories set against the backdrop of falling snow." Bush has created seven unique and loosely connected stories, fables, reflections, of and on winter themed moments. Some have fantasy elements and others are more personal, but all are exquisitely presented with memorable tunes and the Bush creativity of days long past. The production and arrangements are still subtle and toned down but in the case of this material that was the proper choice. The music is repetitive and meditative, designed to lull the listener into an old overstuffed chair, sipping tea as he/she gazes out the window at falling snow at dusk, as the mind wanders. It's an incredible journey one is taken on here.

Much of the album focuses on Kate's piano played softly and thoughtfully over long periods of time, letting "rock and roll" fall away for the most part. Her voice is in fine form despite years of smoking, a bit lower, but very expressive. "Snowflake" features the vocals of her son giving winter imagery as she counters with a comforting refrain about being there for him. His natural high voice as a young kid works wonders, giving the piece the feel of a play, of some classic fiction. What an opening. "The world is so loud, keep falling, I'll find you" she sings to us. It lulls you into a very beautiful space and requires patience; this is not a pop album. Don't bother with this album unless you have a space you can listen to music without distraction. We are then treated to a ghost story about a woman who appears under the water in "Lake Tahoe", a very deep and cold lake in the western United States noted for strange stories about its depths. Kate returns to the themes of water and drowning with these marvelous formal choir vocalists countering her own. In one of many neat ways she ties things back to snow, the Victorian ghost from the lake comes to the surface to call her dog, "Snowflake", with Kate assuming character. Next she plays a bit like Vince Guaraldi with light jazzy piano in a very strange love song where the fact that the lover is a snowman leads to fantastic lyrical moments, though below the surface Kate has said the song is pretty dark. This track is beautifully embellished with Steve Gadd's tasteful drumming and these perfect guitar brushstrokes by Danny McIntosh.

The album's second half shifts a bit from the incredible meditations of the first half. "Wild Man" is the closest we get to a rocker here, the story of some people who discover a Yeti and choose to help him escape rather than be captured by explorers and paraded in front of the world. It has the most amazing chorus, these voices obscured by an effect that sounds like people yelling in a blizzard. It's one of those rare magical moments which make you feel something you can't explain. She captures the wonder of this mythical beast that we all kind of hope exists, and the instincts a few of us would have to protect it rather than destroy it. "Snowed in at Wheeler Street" is the much discussed duet with Elton John, about lovers who keep crossing paths throughout time only to be ripped apart by fate. Bush says John had never heard the song, had no idea what he was about to do, he just walked into the studio and laid down this impressive vocal. It's a mini film in your head reminiscent of the great Jaglom film, "Déjà vu." (Coincidence hit close to home as my dear parents were residents at the end of an actual Wheeler street for 54 years, and snowed in many times to boot.) The title track will be a love it or hate it moment for some fans as Stephen Fry delivers a series of alternate words for snow, while Kate periodically eggs him on with mischievous delight. She claimed to still be thinking up the last few as Fry readied for the session and it does boast a spontaneous feel. At first I thought the song tedious and figured it would be one to skip, but once you stop thinking in terms of the wordplay part, you realize the subtle pleasantries of the music have crept under your skin. The last track "Among Angels" is the only one that is solo Kate, just her at the piano in the spirit of tracks like Coral Room and This Woman's Work, it is contemplative and soothing. Once again this is Kate singing to our imperfect selves, our broken selves, telling us not to give up, that we are indeed loved even if we don't know it. Its power lies in the sparse intimacy, truly a message from artist to listener if you'll accept it as such. It ends the album experience on a beautiful note. Ironically, the very first chord she plays on this track was wrong, a mistake. She pauses and starts again realizing they would edit it later. But friends talked her into leaving the chord there, saying it added a bit of a mysterious prelude that pulled in the listener. Indeed, when one reads the lyrics, it does seem perfect to have it there.

One reviewer described the album like this: "Snow brings about a state of exception in which there's no pressure to exert ourselves on the outside world: instead, it invites contemplativeness and the prioritization of personal and domestic relationships over professional ones. Bush's habitual provocations to abandon day-to-day concerns while cultivating romantic, internal landscapes have always felt slightly like the work of someone gazing from a window into a blizzard. This, one senses, is her natural territory...Where her past work has often been heavily-layered and breathless, 50 Words for Snow uses negative space to impressive effect; much of the album features little more than voice and flurrying passages of piano which gust across the stave, changing pace and melodic direction as if they're suddenly hitting updrafts." -Joe Kennedy, Quietus

I think that's right. Bush has found a comfort level on this recording that has been missing for some time. Call it command, focus, whatever. Based on the interview I heard it seems to be a very special recording to her as well. If this is the beginning of a new era for Kate Bush, we may be in for a treat. She sounds re-energized in spirit, even when the album's outer personality seems subdued. This album may well be another masterpiece for Kate Bush, though I'll have to see how it feels after some time. But it certainly was one of the year's biggest surprises. Even if you found Aerial a bore as I did, don't write off Snow.

Finnforest | 4/5 |


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