For most of her career, in the minds of fans and music journalists alike, Kate Bush has almost been above and beyond criticism. That’s certainly true of her work up until ‘The Red Shoes’, after which, she disappeared for over a decade. When she finally re-emerged with the long-awaited ‘Aerial’ in November 2005, most fans were delighted. The album had a wandering nature and wasn’t always on par with her best work, but it was great to have Kate back.
After that, Kate disappeared yet again. Six years later, with almost no fanfare – and certainly none of the anticipation surrounding ‘Aerial’ – she released ‘Director’s Cut’, a collection of partially re-recorded tunes from her ‘Sensual World’ and ‘Red Shoes’ albums. Responses were more than mixed. While some fans were predictably sycophantic, others were scathing. This was the first time Kate had received such a negative response in high numbers. An artist once beyond criticism had released an obviously sub-par work. What she’d kept almost entirely under wraps, however, was her work on brand spanking new material at the same time.
Not a genuine concept album, but certainly themed, ’50 Words For Snow’ – released almost six years to the day after ‘Aerial’ – had plenty riding on it. Not only would it need to restore faith in those who’d despised everything ‘Director’s Cut’ stood for, but it also had to equal ‘Aerial’ – ‘Aerial’, of course, being the obvious reference point; since [a] it was Bush’s most recent completely original work, and [b] it would be unreasonable to expect it to reach the heights of Kate’s 80s output – so much time has passed since then.
The first thing that’s notable about the album is its wandering nature. ‘Aerial’ had its drawn out moments – particularly on the themed second half, but that was nothing compared to ’50 Words For Snow’. In fact, most of ’50 Words’ is nothing remotely like ‘Aerial’, or anything else in the Kate Bush catalogue – it’s not even like anything you imagine it to be before hearing it. Presenting just seven songs in over an hour, the album has an epic quality to say the least. Right from the opening piano chords of ‘Snowflake’, the music represents a cold, wintery quality – much like Tori Amos’s ‘Winter’ had – and as those piano lines roll by, their bleakness pulls in the listener. For almost ten minutes, this opening number features Kate plus piano, augmented by occasional electronic sounds and an orchestral minimalism providing atmospheric bottom end. As for percussion, you’ll find that’s at the minimum too – drum rolls occasionally rear up like the wind, but roll away again just as quickly. Kate’s voice understated and husky – barely the voice which made her fortune – but against such stark arrangements her mumbling style works well. Any high notes she may have once hit are provided by a youthful choral singer, which too kind of befits the cold and wintery atmospheres. It’s not like anything Bush has ever recorded before – any layers here are slight, only revealing themselves after a few plays – but ‘Snowflake’ is an intriguing opening statement and one which sustains its ten minute duration surprisingly well.
The beginning of ‘Lake Tahoe’ is horrible. A choir sounds slightly jarring at first and then even more so once a few discordant elements are thrown into the arrangement. In contrast to the opening track, any peaks – of which there are few – are provided by orchestration as opposed to percussion; that orchestration simple, but breath-taking in places. The piano playing swells as the track moves it’s slow, snow-filled journey; overall, it’s a much more traditional tune than on ‘Snowflake’, a tune on which Kate’s voice has a greater presence. Not even the softest moments of ‘Aerial’ even hint at this kind of ambience. The only downside is that, despite some lovely moments, ‘Lake Tahoe’ just can’t sustain eleven minutes without sounding like a four minute track that’s been left on repeat. Later listens do little to change this feeling… Half the length and minus the choir, it could have been one of the album’s better numbers, but in this form, it’s definitely of an acquired taste.
‘Misty’ offers a similar atmosphere to that of ‘Lake Tahoe’, but without the nasty guest vocalists. That alone makes it far superior… The pianos swirl and the orchestra lulls and Kate paints more lyrical pictures of snow filled landscapes. This is perhaps the closest ’50 Words’ gets to wholly familiar territory – surely to become a fan favourite. The jazzy drums and an upright bass lay a gentle backbeat in places against piano lines full of minor keys. And, most importantly, Bush is in better voice here, never overstretching her now more limited range. At over thirteen minutes, this is epic in every sense of the word, even reaching a genuine climax in a way that most of ’50 Words For Snow’ threatens but rarely ever does. One final thought: as superb as this is, can we hear Tori Amos sing this one now? Please?
The second half of the album is rather more upbeat. The first track released from the album, ‘Wild Man’ changes the mood instantly. The pianos are gone and, in their place, some dated keyboards provide the basis of the tune. Luckily, these are balanced out by some lovely acoustic guitar work – one of the only times are guitar comes to prominence. Kate whispers her vocal, occasionally breaking into actual singing, backed with other voices. For most people – non-fans especially – this track certainly sounds more like the Kate Bush they’re familiar with. Although it provides the album with something more immediately accessible, it feels horribly out of place, not unlike like a left-over from 1993’s ‘The Red Shoes’. As with ‘Lake Tahoe’, there’s a strong feeling of unnecessary padding here too – this four minute tune is dragged out to over seven minutes, severely outstaying its welcome. Synths sit at the heart of ‘Snowed In At Wheeler Street – another definite high point – but their reverbed sounds only provide a mechanical heart, as opposed to leading the piece in any way. The basic tune, yet again, comes from the piano, but in some ways any music is secondary to the vocal performances. Kate hits the heights of her ‘Aerial’ vocal styles – outshining them in places – while on second vocal, Sir Elton John offers a booming, overtly theatrical accompaniment. He could easily be accused over over-singing, but since the piece demands such an almost ridiculously overwrought performance, he sounds great, particularly as ‘Wheeler Street’ reaches it’s inevitable climax.
What comes next could never have been imagined, even in jest. The title track could be described as eccentric, but that would only begin to cover it. Over a groove that fuses adult pop/rock with an ambient danceable groove, Kate counts to 50 slowly while Mr Stephen Fry reads out fifty names for snow in corresponding foreign languages. It works wonderfully thanks to Fry’s distinct tones. From other artists it may have been considered frivolous – stupid even – but for a woman who has collaborated with Rolf Harris on more than one occasion, it’s all part of the Kate Bush experience. What the track could have done without, however, it the sung refrain between the blocks of counting. Kate sings “come on, we’ve got [insert number here] more to go / Come on, tell us your fifty words for snow!”. This pushes listener goodwill a bit too far. Eccentric is fine, but deliberately bonkers just ends up sounding a bit desperate. Aside from this faux pas, the music is great, with theeight and a half minutes feeling surprisingly brisk. Bring our journey full circle, ‘Among Angels’ is a slow brooding piano ballad; while not as minimalist as ‘Snowflake’, nor as grand as ‘Misty’, it brings proceedings to a close with another highlight. Kate’s voice has a clarity not always heard on the other tracks, while the piano and strings have a drifting simplicity which creates an almost cinematic nature. It’s the sound of an artist maturing gracefully and a perfect closing statement.
So, six years in the making, ’50 Words For Snow’ has moments which are surprisingly sparse – the kind of album other artists could have made in a quarter of the time (although it must be said, ’50 Words For Snow’ is an album most other artists just would not make). Parts of it could stand up proudly with some of Kate’s previous recordings, but some of it misses the mark – not due to a lack of vision, but perhaps maybe too much vision. As for the best bits, Kate once said that December would be magic again…and ’50 Words For Snow’ suggests that, for Kate Bush fans, the future winters now have a magical soundtrack forever more.