Until recently, we’ve had a mild winter in the Midwest. There’s been very few days where temperatures fell below freezing and it was the first time in years when there wasn’t snow on the ground during Christmas.
It was a challenge not to buy Kate Bush’s new album 50 Words For Snow when it was released last November, but I had to wait. I knew that someone would probably place it under the Christmas tree as a gift for me, as it’s well known around these parts that my love for all things Kate is quite pronounced.
Indeed, when that morning came, I found two copies of the record from different sources.
How strange then that when the moment arrived to finally dive into it, I felt restrained. Within the first few chords of the opener “Snowflake,” I began to consider that I might not be drawn to it in the same way that I was with other Kate releases. That feeling continued when I heard the first voice of the record.
It wasn’t Kate, but her son Bertie.
I tucked away 50 Words For Snow for a few weeks, and then in mid January we received our first snowfall. Suddenly, the fields transformed from dead blacks and browns into mysterious white. The snow dampened the sounds outside to the point where you felt like you could be the only living thing for miles around. The crunch of my boots became a cacophony of rhythm while the cold, blowing wind through the trees became an orchestra of strings.
It was at that moment when I felt ready to give 50 Words For Snow another listen.
I’m not suggesting that there needs to be snow on the ground before you can appreciate Kate’s 10th record, but for me it provided the necessary motivation. Like those cold and silent evenings where the elements force everyone inside, Kate has created an album of such minimalism that it can force listeners into their own isolation as the music does not bode well in social settings.
The intimacy requires your patience, and with time, you begin to notice the flourishes with every quiet pause, each piano chord, and every twisted tale.
Suddenly, Albert’s voice becomes as high as the snowflake that’s forming in the clouds, Steve Gadd’s drumming swings with the slow pace of footsteps on snow-covered sidewalks, and Kate’s voice--deeper with age--becomes the focal point of arrangements that go past the ten-minute mark with intense and precise intent.
With so much time on your hands, you begin to notice things. For example, you discover that one of the album’s highlights (“Misty”) is about a woman who melts a snowman during a night of lovemaking. The following track (“Wild Man”) seems to be about Bigfoot, and the title track finds Stephen Fry reciting things like “avalanche,” “shovel crusted” and “ankle breaker” from Kate’s own personal thesaurus for the word snow.
“Snowed In At Wheeler Street” features Kate’s idol Elton John as her duet partner, a love song complete with melodrama and Elton’s penchant for throwing his back into the delivery without providing any honest emotional weight. It’s the album’s lowest point, which is expected when you consider the melodramatic garbage that Elton’s been releasing for decades.
The closer “Among Angels” is another disappointment, mainly for how out of place it sounds. It carries the same piano arrangement as the rest of the album, but thematically it’s off course considering the lack of a wintery theme and from the fact that the aforementioned title track seems like such a perfect ending.
In some respects, 50 Words For Snow is just as strange as The Dreaming, albeit for entirely different reasons. While The Dreaming relied on weird arrangements and challenging lyrical content, Snow lets the deceivingly strange themes stand right out in front of some very organic structures.
It’s a record that will definitely stand the test of time and it may rank as one her best pieces of work for some fans. But for me, 50 Words For Snow works best when the season that inspired it contains the right amount of wintery details to perfectly accentuate its primitive arrangements.
Video: Kate Bush – “Mistraldespair”
Video: Kate Bush – “Wild Man”