Kate Bush - 50 Words for Snow

by Priscilla Eyles Rating:9 Release Date:2011-11-21

Well you know what they say, you wait for one Kate Bush album for ages and then two come. This creative outpouring from the grand queen of art-pop is one in the eye for those who were in any doubt that she is still as relevant and original as ever, while young upstart Bush-alikes like Florence + the Machine have already lost their creativity and flair.

50 Words for Snow, as the title suggests, is a concept album takes its inspiration from the atmosphere of winter and in particular snow. As Bush describes it herself, snow has "a magical fascinating quality" and this album perfectly captures those qualities, making for an involving and inspiring listening experience. Not just another Christmas album then. Like a good film, the longer form songs/ballads which make up the majority of this album help to create an involving and seductive experience.

The opening track, 'Snowflake', sets the tone, and the first voice we hear is that of Bush's 13-year old son Bertie, whose angelic chorister-like voice Bush said she wanted to capture on record before it lowered (the fact that Tori Amos also used her 11-year old daughter Natascha on her latest album Night of the Hunters, will no doubt invite comparisons) .

It neatly sets up the theme of transience that is a major trope of the album. And his voice is indeed as pure as the, ahem, driven snow (though when he sings lines like "my twist and shout" it is harder to take him seriously). His voice perfectly fits the lyrics written for him which portray him as an ethereal creature from the sky. When we finally hear Bush's voice there is a depth and warmth, which makes the refrain she sings, "The world is so loud. Keep falling and I'll find you," sound genuinely comforting like a big warm blanket enveloping you.

The song's production, like much of the rest of the album, is stripped-back. Languid echoing piano lines are illuminated by subdued percussion, short interjections of shimmering strings and electric guitar, and a continuous drone. This album is indeed Bush at her most subtle and minimalist.

Other piano-lead songs like 'Lake Tahoe', 'Misty' and 'Among Angels' are equally successful in sustaining an ethereal atmosphere which draws you in. Many of the songs are also, on a lyrical level, intriguing stories. 'Lake Tahoe' is a Gothic ghost tale of a woman who has drowned in a lake: "They say some days, up she comes, up she rises, as if out of nowhere, wearing Victorian dress." (Something tells me Bush likes a good ghost story).

The picture she presents of her frail old dog at home dreaming of its long-gone mistress manages to be poignant without being sentimental. It also has a beautiful build-up where the bursts of Michael Nyman-like high strings develops into a rich full-string section complemented by castanets. Meanwhile 'Misty' is an ode with erotic undertones to a melted snowman (transience again), and has some of her most striking imagery ("His crooked mouth is full of dead leaves/ Full of dead leaves, bits of twisted branches and frozen garden").

Lead single 'Wild Man' is more up-tempo and sounds most similar to songs on Aerial with its keyboard layers and synthesized guitar work. It tells the story of a wild man in India who is animalistic, a force of nature that has to be killed. It is let down a bit by the overdone and rather theatrical chorus but has a great rhythm section. The title track is another up-tempo number made up of lists of words for snow which get sillier and sillier, read with erudite authority by Stephen Fry. Its driving rhythm and distorted electronic sound effects mean that it is more interesting than just a gimmicky song you skip after a couple of listens (unlike Aerial's 'Pi' say).

The centrepiece, however, has to be 'Snowed in at Wheeler Street', an evocative and moving duet sung with Bush's long-time inspiration Elton John, that has the emotional power and resonance of earlier classics like The Sensual World's 'Never Be Mine' or Kate's other duet 'Don't Give Up'. The song plays out like a mini wartime drama with its imagery of Rome burning, the singers playing long-lost lovers full of regret and nostalgia for their brief time together during the war when they were on different sides. And they sound great together, Elton's deep rich vibrato coming into full force.

The production is also beautifully balanced, the echoing synth motif and energetic build-up of the crashing drums and piano underneath their impassioned plea not to lose each other again, combine to make a song that is utterly entrancing. It really is as good as anything she has ever done, which is saying a lot. Iconic singers take note, this is the way to do a comeback it really is quality not quantity.

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