Wednesday, 7 December 2011

A weird winter sparkler: Kate Bush returns with 50 Words For Snow

First published in Loud And Quiet. And my first non-disclosure agreement, legal eagles!

Kate Bush 
50 Words For Snow

We wait forever for a Kate Bush album, so of course two come along at once. After the odd rehashing of old material on Director’s Cut, a surprise Christmas gift of seven new tracks has appeared in our stocking. Given that Bush appears to be one of the most genuine and least cynical pop stars around, the idea that this shock-and-awe approach to album release schedules could be a contrivance to muster maximum media impact isn't a pleasant one, but it all seems very cleverly played. Still, any cynicism is shot to pieces after hearing 50 Words For Snow, an album dealing in suitably cold and wintry themes: icy precipitation in its various forms; humankind's relationship with wild, irrational nature; and attempts at love in the face of chaos and loss.

'Snowflake' casts Bush's young son as the title 'character' drifting down from the sky, partly sung and partly spoken in the cloying voice of a just-pubescent English boy. His mother interjects in a sweet but slightly icky expression of their maternal bond (“The world is so round, keep falling, I'll find you”). 'Lake Tahoe' and 'Misty' use a similar palette of skeletal piano phrases, brushed drums, and strangely synthetic-sounding string flurries in structures more narrative than musical – all three top 10 minutes. 'Misty' is the one about shagging a snowman, by the way. Bonkers on the page, brilliant in your ears, even when she sings, “I can feel him melting in my hands.”

The single 'Wild Man' is the most immediate, despite its spoken verses and creepy dual-voice chorus. Lyrical loopiness continues, with the abominable snowman as the subject: “Lying in my tent, I can hear your cry echoing round the mountainside, you sound lonely.” But the strongest song on the album – and I can't quite believe I'm putting this to paper – is 'Snowed in at Wheeler Street', the achingly raw duet with Elton John, playing lovers torn apart across the centuries. “Come with me, I'll find some rope, I'll tie us together/ I've been waiting for you so long, I don't want to lose you again,” she sings over a twisting horn pattern like a Steve Reich offcut. It’s painfully heartfelt and quite chilling.

Then there's the really batty one, the title track, with Bush cracking the whip on the lazily erudite voice of Stephen Fry. “C'mon man, you got 44 to go!” she urges, while Fry nonchalantly proffers his words for snow, from the sublime ('stellar tundra') to the ridiculous ('phlegm de neige'). 'Among Angels' provides a sense of enclosure after an unpredictable second half but, weirdly, begins with a bum chord and a clipped “sorry”. A strange mistake on such a well-crafted album? With pressure to produce a classic after so many years away, perhaps admitting a tiny error allows Bush to shirk the weight of expectation by making the first move. 50 Words For Snow delicately negotiates its status, never shying from the artistic convictions of its creator, but still careful to put us at ease with her singular talent. Sometimes the genius has to play dumb so as not to scare off the simpletons. A winter sparkler.

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