Album Review: Kate Bush – ’50 Words For Snow’

It's full of some weird winter wonders

It takes a ’70s señora like [a]Kate Bush[/a] to really make a concept album. None of this vague ‘oh, it’s kind of about the English Riviera, only most of it’s not really’ fudge. When [a]Kate Bush[/a] sets out to write an album about snow, you get seven songs up to their necks in shivery drifts. You get yeti. You get sex with snowmen.

And, disturbing as the sheet-soddening one-night-stand of ‘Misty’ is, it’s nice to have someone put a bit more effort into being seasonal than sticking on a vintage frock and covering ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’ (hellooo, No-ey Deschanel). And ‘50 Words For Snow’ will, in return, demand a little effort from you.

Musically, we’re in the same expansive, unhurried territory as 2005’s ‘Aerial’, but this time, it’s winter. In the cool atmosphere of opener ‘Snowflake’, the soft impact of piano and muffled drums conjures the feel of thick fluffy snowfall. Kate’s voice is soft, subtle, seeming barely impelled by breath, while her son Bertie’s is choirboy-pure, cutting silvery and innocent through sparse flurries of Fantasia violins, and ripples of high piano notes. It takes a confident mistress of mood to start an album with a nine-minute song so sparely drawn.

Lake Tahoe’, featuring classical singers Stefan Roberts and Michael Wood, is a chilly choral ghost story based around the urban myth of the cold Californian mountain lake, whose bottom is rumoured to be lined with perfectly preserved bodies. The smoky and sparse feel of the piano puts us somewhere between minimal modern classical and Carole King or Laura Nyro.

On ‘Misty’ her voice becomes deeper, minxier, as she husks “give him eyes/Make him smile for me, give him life”. Her growl is bewitching, and despite the utter ludicrousness of her love, you become as snowblind in it as she is. “Melting in my hand”, indeed…

The only yellow spot is the title track, which is, as anyone who remembers ‘Pi’ from ‘Aerial’ will be not at all surprised to learn, a list of wackadoodle alternative descriptions for snow (“deamondi-pavlova… eiderfalls”) recited in Stephen Fry’s matter-of-factly QI-est of tones as Kate counts down the numbers in the background then willdy yells “come on Joe, you got 22 to go” as a chorus.

Sure, it’s an interesting idea. I could make a song by listing all the names of all the UK’s motorway service junctions (“Watford Gap… Fleet… Newport Pagnaaaaallllll”), but it’s doubtful I’d be saying anything to anyone about their lives. But maybe Kate’s just having a laugh, throwing you a sonic snowball. She’s allowed. The long, hungry hiatus before ‘Aerial’ has had the effect of making [a]Kate Bush[/a] criticism an unnecessarily serious-faced pursuit, but her songs have always reveled in the daft and whimsical.

Wild Man’ is also, frankly, quite silly on first listen. That faintly Eastern motif, the oddly accented, lurching delivery. At first it seems forced, but repeated listens bring out a real sense of the abominable snowman’s raw loneliness.

The most surprising moment is a duet with one of Kate’s childhood heroes, [a]Elton John[/a]. Not just a drug counselor to international pop stars, our Reg is, it seems, still capable of an arrestingly rich and complex vocal on this high-drama tale of time-travelling lovers repeatedly torn apart and reunited, holed up in front of the fire, keeping the snowstorms, faintly menacing synths and the future at bay. Closer ‘Among Angels’, while less striking, has a spacious, sacred feel. Like the rest of ‘50 Words For Snow’, it makes you crane your head close to listen. [a]Kate Bush[/a] no longer needs to cartwheel through dry ice to get your attention. By following her own strange snowy course without thought to what might be expected, she sets her own agenda. To hope for a ‘Running Up That Hill’ or a ‘Wuthering Heights’ would be to miss the point, and the subtle pleasures – there’s enough people walking the ways Kate cleared 30 years ago. Follow her footprints off the beaten path, and you’ll find some weird winter wonders.

Emily Mackay