’50 Words For Snow’
This is a concept that is like no other.
’50 Words For Snow’ is Kate Bush’s finest moment, a pinnacle in a career of pinnacles.
A concept album is usually a plodding and desperate affair but Kate Bush has created something that shapeshifts all the time. Built around the idea of snow this moves its themes around so brilliantly that you are never saddled with an obvious theme. The songs may use snow as their spine and metaphor but like snow they have a mystery and elusiveness like the emotions that they are describing.
There’s a weird notion of genius in pop music, it’s usually the preserve of some bearded middle aged man who has been around for ever and is still worshipped for some long lost blinding moment of inspiration.
Somehow it doesn’t seem to be translated to women but there can be no argument when it comes to Kate Bush. If you are looking for someone who is uniquely talented and always manages to do the unexpected then you have come to the right place. This is pure genius and with an emotional range that makes most men look like grunting dogs with songs of anger, lust, pain and sorrow and er, that’s it. The emotions touched on in this album shape shift and slip away like the melting snow that are the backdrop to many of the songs, their subtle moods are described and flurry away.
This year there has been two Kate Bush albums, the reconstituted songs on the number 2 chart album ”ËDirectors Cut’ and now her tenth album, ’50 Words For Snow’. It’s a thrilling reconstition of a fascinating career and further installments on a trip that sees the extravagantly gifted songwriter not rest on her laurels and keep moving forward.
The seven songs are stripped down and intimate with many of them just Kate Bush and her piano. Oh, and that voice that is like no other with a gift of melody that twists and turns into places you just can’t guess.
There is an honesty and intensity that would normally take a million watts of cranked volume to eek out. The beauty of Kate Bush is that she does all this with her rolling piano and her ethereal vocals. She, of course, sings beautifully, one of the great voices, distinctive and powerful without resorting to histrionics and it’s always stunningly original with many different flavours and colours and ways of singing from her trademark whoop to whispers to almost growling and always truly imaginative and never resting on the obvious melody.
This is a mature album, but not in that dull way that that word used to denote, it’s themes are even deeper than the astonishing records that she debuted with thirty years ago, digging into an emotional terrain beyond the range of most other musicians with reflections of longing, loss and love, with a real depth.
Many of the songs are just Kate and her piano, the stripped down simplicity seems to give more space to the fluttering vocals and the melancholic dampness set against a backdrop of falling snow- that feeling of intimacy that it brings and the feeling of endlessness and the blanket of nature as it fills up the soul with a stark and powerful beauty.
There’s been a lot of nature in music this year from the Botanist singing about plants to Bjork and her love of David Attenborough, Kate Bush has trumped them all with her subtlety and extraordinary ability to squeeze emotion out of quite brilliant lyrical turns and strange concepts that show a breathtaking imagination.
‘Snowflake’ opens the album and sets the stall with a piano that sounds like falling snow and a jazz tinge that flavours several cuts ion this album that hints at the same sort of eternal that John Coltrane once did.
The song is so open and honest that is makes you catch your breath. The best singers let their emotions flood out through their music with an unfettered honesty, ”ËSnowflake’ is a song of love from a mother to her son and is quite touching as it takes you an emotional trip that is unusual in modern music.
The first three songs on the album are the same sort of stark scenery, the snowdrift piano that somehow embodies the silence of the snow itself- those nights when, even in the city, there is an eerie quiet and a strange glow, and all sorts of feelings come to play against the white backdrop.
The second track, ‘Lake Tahoe’, is a song about an old lady who drowned and is now a ghost in another stripped down piano and plaintive emotional melodrama that is a long way away from, let’s say, X Factor.
We are in another territory here. It takes a real skill, well, a real genius, to pull off these kinds of concepts and again it’s a stripped down piano led song with Kate Bush pulling all those vocal tricks with her voice floating almost ghost like over the exquisitely played piano. ”ËYou’ve come home’ she sings reminiscent of ”ËWuthering Heights’ all those years ago, her voice is mixed slightly low to give it an even more shimmering geist like quality.
It’s so fantastically weird that it takes you on a real trip like all great music does. The song creates an atmosphere and its melancholic aura fills the room with its own voodoo. This is all black lace, gothic horror but genuine, there is a real fear here, you can feel the geist floating around the room as she sings.
Ghosts and snow are a perfect combination.
Of course this is not a bunch of songs thrown together, there is the underlying theme of snow that links the tracks and on the next track, ”ËMisty’ the theme is pushed as far as it can be. Those snowbound days of last winter must have been more inspirational to Kate Bush than everyone else. ”ËMisty’ is a sensual song, packed full of double entendres about building a snowman as well as love and lust. The snowman is, perhaps, a Freudian thing that she uses as a metaphor feeling love and lust for the symbolic snowman before it melts away.
Every angle is explored in the thirteen minute long song which is again built around the stark piano with flurries of jazzy drums playing against the rolling piano that brings pictures of falling snow into your mind that also manage to weave in the melancholic feelings of the loss of youth as it melts away along with the snowman of the song. Nothing is forever, even a thirteen minute long song.
The album’s lead off single, ‘Wild Man’ is a switch in mood. The song is already a firm favorite here with its subtle kookiness (it’s first line is ‘you’re not a Langur monkey…’) that reminds us of the old school Kate Bush of her pop surrealism. The song does that great trick of pulling you in with its pop hook but also has a trippy weirdness to it like some sort of relic of the late sixties/early seventies when people dared to create pop masterpieces that melted in you head and took you on a trip.
There is a really great semi whispered, moths to the flame vocal on the verses that is so damn sexy as she lets the imagination travel with plenty of references to what sounds like references to the Himalayas and some sort of mystic mountain hop as she joins the explorers looking for a mythical wild man or maybe not- the song has an elusive theme and a multilayer of ideas, she even mentions the word rhododendrons in a song- possibly a pop first.
The chorus has a really weird vocal as Kate Bush sings about footprints in the snow through what sounds like a Leslie Speaker as she looks for a wild man in the mountain or maybe love, it’s hard to tell and that’s the way we like it. Meaning is elusive and floats like the falling snow and melts away just as quickly. There is so little mystery in music nowadays that its great to be presented with truly strange lyrics that are on one level quite childlike and on another level deep and elusively magical.
The album’s most tricky song is ‘Snowed In At Wheeler St’, which is the duet with Elton John as it takes some getting used to hearing his voice. There was a time several decades ago when Elton John was considered quite hip. His early albums were greeted with a critical frenzy and he was looked on as the closest in spirit to the Beatles we had. That seems impossible to believe now. After punk he sold millions of records but seemed to be operating in another timezone. Kate Bush remained a fan and for this song about lovers she gets Elton in to sing a duet with her. It sounds really off the wall as the duet travels through history. Their voices are very different and it sort of breaks the spell, Kate Bush’s voice is on its trip and then suddenly you think ”Ëwow, what’s Elton John doing here singing in a deeper voice than usual!’ The song is built on an hypnotic pulse and travels through history as the lovers float through eternity in another atmospheric trip.
The album’s title track is an another unlikely collaboration as Stephen Fry has his services called upon to do a voice over on this slice off kilter neo funk with great shuffling drums and prominent bass with Fry’s hypnotic vocal sounding like the late period Wire of ’23 Years Too Late’
Fry sounds great, he does have one of those definitive voices that is part of the modern landscape and his delivery is perfect. The only other voice I could think of that would fit perfectly on this track in the same kind of way and would be brilliant for Kate Bush to duet with is her old friend, the Stranglers’ Hugh Cornwell– who she was very close to in her early days (imagine that duet!).
Fry is given the tall order of making up a list of words for snow but he’s the right man to call on. His love of language and the quark, strangeness and charm of words is fully explored here as Bush’s lower mixed voice, again cranked through the Leslie speakers, takes the rousing chorus into a weird place as she sings ”Ëlet me hear your fifty words for snow’ at the quizzical figure of Fry who intones the increasingly weird 50 words of snow back to her as she sings ‘come on you got 32 more words to go, let me hear your 50 words for snow”Â¦’
As he lists the words she counts him down- wow! it’s so fantastically weird and clever.
The sheer weirdness of this track makes it my favorite on the album, lost in the song, enveloped by the snow and the increasing eccentricity of the track.
The album ends with ‘Among Angels’, which, instead of going for obvious crescendo sees Kate Bush going back to the piano for a mood piece and delivering the starkest piece of the whole record.
Her voice hangs beautifully onto the melody and has a slight crack and croak to it that send shivers down your spine before soaring off into that clear waver that she is so famous for as she exposes the doubts and fears that exist in everyone’s soul.
Mind-blowingly open and eerily emotional it’s the perfect ending to an album that has been a stunning trip and a work of pure genius and perhaps the best of her career.
Kate Bush was always going to be an artist that got better with age, not tied into the tedious teenage concept of pop she is a real artist who bears her soul and is not afraid to dig deep and take risks.
This is a masterwork that takes no easy options and takes a real effort to explore.
An important work that defines genius.