’Our Kate’ and Her ’50 Words for Snow’
I’ll admit to being a Kate Bush-o-phile. What I don’t quite understand is how "50 Words for Snow," Bush’s new album, seems to have sneaked up on me--on EDGE in general, since we don’t seem to have run a review of the album. For shame!
But before I correct this oversight, it’s worth standing back and admiring her recent burst of industry. Bush seemed to be on a trajectory of longer and longer gaps between albums. It was 1985 when her best-known and most successful album, "Hounds of Love" (propelled by the smash hit "Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)," which remains a much-covered classic even now) was released. It was a four-year wait until the follow-up, 1989’s "The Sensual World," and another four years until "The Red Shoes," in 1993. Neither of those albums were completely successful, creatively speaking; indeed, Bush seemed exhausted on "The Red Shoes," and the album itself was, by the artist’s own lights, sonically inferior.
That has since been addressed with a remastered reissue of "The Red Shoes," not to mention Bush’s "Director’s Cut" album from last summer, which took selected tracks from both "The Sensual World" and "The Red Shoes" and saw Kate fiddle, rejigger, and re-cast them so that they were more to her liking (though, perhaps, not always to the liking of her fans; for my money, she took a perfectly lovely song, "Never Be Mine," and mangled it).
After "The Red Shoes," Kate seemed to go into hibernation. She made the occasional contribution to tribute albums, recording versions of "Candle in the Wind" and "Rocket Man" for a collection of Elton John covers, and she worked on music for commercials. But it was an epic and aching twelve years until she made her return with "Ariel" in 2005. "Ariel" was a double CD that made the wait worth the while.
So who could have guessed that a mere six years later Bush would release "50 Words for Snow," an hour-long CD that comprises only seven tracks--but seven long, and exquisitely formed, tracks?
Bush has long had a thing for skies and heavens and weather, so it’s of a piece with her longstanding, and somewhat airy, themes as well as the album’s wintry feel when she begins the first track with the lyric, "I was born in a cloud." The song, "Snowflake," features a delicate, though sturdy, piano line (Bush is a pianist and her songs have always had a strong bias toward that instrument) backed by synth and well-placed percussion. It’s a song that seems to drift with languid beauty even as it moves purposefully.
That style persists on the album. "Lake Tahoe" is also built around a nearly ethereal piano, while a chorus strikes up a somewhat dissonant counterpoint, before Bush enters the picture with her gorgeous vocals, her voice weathered and mellowed by the years, a far cry (if you will) from the somewhat screechy and shrill voice of her youth. The song incorporates a trace of violin here, an almost whimsical, singsong callout there.
Piano of a darker and heavier hue, together with percussion, drives "Misty," one of the album’s most brain-colonizing tracks. "I’ll turn out the light / Switch on a starry night / My window flies open..." You almost flash back to "The Sensual World" and Kate’s cadre of Bulgarian singers from the track "Rocket’s Tail," before the song arrives at yet another tender piano figure: Where does she dream these up? But it’s not night flights through rarefied arctic air Kate’s got on her mind here. Rather, the more thematically suitable precedent to this song is the steamy "Man With the Child in His Eyes." The track is a passionate love song, possibly to a figure of fantasy, but done up in a minor key and shrouded in melancholy. Even so, it feels familiar and almost has a pop vibe--a slowed down and deeply chilled sort of pop, but still effervescent.
"Wild Man" is this album’s Weird Kate offering. You know what I mean; once or twice on every album, Bush seems to depart the world of the ordinary, where she’s an extraordinary creature, and enter another dimension, where she’s a denizen among the angelic and the truly odd. On "The Sensual World" it was "Deeper Understanding," her prescient meditation on computer addiction; on "The Red Shoes" it was "Constellation of the Heart," an incomprehensible but unshakeable song, and also "Big Stripey Lie," a writhing, restless song. It was probably "Pi," a song made up mostly of a recitation of numbers... the value of pi, actually... on "Ariel."
Here, it’s a song about a man who lives outside of civilization (and is, therefore, a threat to it), and the woman who listens dreamily to his nocturnal howls, then erases his tracks in the morning so that frightened hunters can’t find and murder him. Kate’s demur, almost monotonous vocals are echoed by an insistent guitar line that remains the same through key changes: Ah, the loyalty of a woman’s heart, when she’s in love!
Thematically, that loyalty persists into the next track, "Snowed in at Wheeler Street," a duet with Elton John that pullulates with an eerie synth and traces a centuries-long romance between frustrated spirits that keep coming back to Earth only to be denied carnal bliss. This is another Bush specialty; it’s only been since "The Red Shoes" that she’s been singing about angels, but a ghost featured on "The Hounds of Love" and even on her debut album, "The Kick Inside" the title track drew on mythos (and referenced, ahem, incest) to tell the story of a doomed love that the world of men found intolerable.
Curiously, it’s the album’s title track that comes closest to being a misfire. A character referred to in the liner notes as Prof. Joseph Yupik (Stephen Fry) drones through a compendium of fifty words for snow. They say that the Inuit have fifty words for snow, by Prof. Yupik isn’t speaking Inuit here; he’s coming up with appellations such as "blackbird braille" and "ankle breaker." It’s essentially a novelty song, but in some odd twist, the cool wit of the piece lacks any overt humor: The song seems to take itself altogether too seriously, right down to the forbiddingly enunciated count that Bush keeps as Yupik rattles off his terms.
But all is forgiven with the seventh track, "Among Angels," one last poignant piano-centric composition that speaks of shimmering angels and eternal love. Bush’s voice, which seemed ragged here and there on "Director’s Cut," breaks your heart on this new album, nowhere more sweetly than on this track.
Personally, I hate winter, but if this is to be the season’s new soundtrack I could change my mind and embrace its drifts and icicles.
Label: ANTI Records. Release Date: Nov. 21, 2011. ASIN: B005PTQPU0