Two Kate Bush albums in one year? That’s pretty much unheard of. Well at least since 1978, when ‘The Kick Inside’ and ‘Lionheart’ bookended the year. But here we are 33 years later and Kate’s about to release ’50 Words For Snow’ following on from May’s ‘Director’s Cut’ which we gave a first listen to here.
Unlike that album’s gentle, re-treading of previously released tracks, the first single from this LP, ‘Wild Man’, suggested we’d be entering into Kate’s surreal world once again.
But sonically at least, ‘Wild Man’ is not indicative of the album at all. Instead it is, as Bush indicated, a suite of seven songs “set against the backdrop of falling snow,” with all the serenity and silence that implies. For anyone who has longed for Bush at her most elemental, just her and her piano, their wish is granted. Here we find Bush magically musing about the white stuff, over romantically elongated mood pieces.
If the sonic landscape is familiar (Bush at her piano, eking out something resembling a classic requiem) the first voice we hear on the track is not. “I was born in a cloud,” sings Bush’s son Bertie (nee Albert) sounding, well, exactly as you’d imagine the pre-pubescent son of La Bush’s voice to sound – like hers but put through some ghostly choirboy filter. When she comes in with the words: “The world is so loud / Keep falling, I’ll find you,” it’s a slab of pan-generational mother-love that’s touching and also quite eerie. Here is the first glimpse of the theme that is deeply ingrained within the whole album – emotional partners finding each other through space, time and consequence.
It begins with a warning. The mini choir of Stefan Roberts and Michael Wood trill : “Cold mountain water/ Don’t ever swim there,” before Bush unfolds an elusive narrative about the legend of an old lady who drowned but continues to exist as a ghost, her “eyes…open but no-one’s home“. We’re re-visiting the terrifying water theme terrain she explored famously on the ‘Hounds Of Love”s second side the ‘Ninth Wave’ ( “It’s…a woman,” Bush sings with dramatic pause, evoking a library full of gothic horror novels). Musically this is a slow burning piano elegy, shifting in dramatic slow motion and framed by the Roberts/Wood Greek Choir and some wistful orchestration.
And now it’s time for the ‘sexy Snowman song’. Well, sort of…
On what’s quite possibly the centerpiece of the first half, this thirteen-and-a-half minute number gloriously unfolds like sheets of velvet (or, more appropriately, sheets of snow). A sensual sounding Bush dissolves into the joys of making a snowman over a jazzy piano and drum background. There are plenty of snowy doubly entendres to be had (“Well I kiss his ice-cream lips…I can feel him melting in my head“) and yet the track is filled with a sort of underlying sadness. With the conceptual allusions to Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman, there’s also the idea of one’s childhood dissolving just as quickly as her new carrot-nosed friend (“I can’t find him…the sheets are soaking,”). Again the theme of the departing lovers is at the root of the track.
After the swathes of piano-led loveliness, ‘Wild Man’ ushers in the sound of snow whistling over the mountains and a musical shift in gear. We’re saying ‘hello guitar -led pop song!’ which harkens back to her great run of singles in the 80s. As we’ve said before, the song lets us see surreal Kate once again, dipping into a culture of ‘otherness’ with an artist’s curiosity. She’s traversing romantic wilds on ‘Wild Man’, tracking Yetis across the Himalayas, emoting about the Garo Hills and referencing the ‘Tengboche Monastry’ (not to mention the rather brave use of the word ‘Rhododendrons’ in a song) against a hypnotic guitar figure and alien voices on the chorus. Through all these elements however, it sounds like she’s tracking down an elusive lover not a man/creature of the unknown.
‘Snowed In At Wheeler St’
“Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you but don’t I know you?” Oh Kate, you old charmer you…This tale of lovers who’ve “been in love forever” is another shift of pace, with Kate and duet partner Elton John getting united, reunited and lost throughout time ( from the burning embers of ancient Rome through to 1942 – “I hide you under my bed/ But they took you away”- to 9/11) over a disorientating keyboard effect which sounds like mirrors vibrating. Hearing John’s stage, American-twang set against Bush’s more subtle armory is slightly jarring but the loveliness of the sentiment is compelling.
’50 Words For Snow’
Stephen Fry gives his best ‘QI’ voice as “Prof. Joseph Yupik” on this elastic, re-fried funk piece doing exactly what it says on the tin, with Bush in a growly voice doing the countdown. The loose-limbed chorus hints at the same mindset behind ‘Director’s Cut’’s re-imagining of ‘Rubberband Girl’ as a twanging, basement-bound Kinks demo. Arguably conceptually more interesting than its eight minute long execution, although props must go to Fry who does his best imbuing each of the 50 words with a sense of drama. Our favourites? Has to be “mountainsob” , “shovelcrusted” and “bad for trains”.
A shimmering closer which calls to mind ‘This Woman’s Work’. Lyrically Bush seems to be giving a strong arm to a friend in need (“I might know what you mean when you say you fall apart/ Aren’t we all the same? In and out of doubt?”) over waves of spacious piano chords. It’s a rather jaw-dropping way to end a beautiful album.
A concept executed with grace, subtlety and just in time to soundtrack your Christmas. There’s a depth and gravitas here that slowly reveals itself over repeated listens.
50 Words for Snow is released via Fish People on 21st November. More info at: www.katebush.com.