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Kate Bush / 50 Words For Snow / Review

Kate Bush / 50 Words For Snow / ReviewIn 1985 Kate Bush released The Ninth Wave which was the name given to side two of her fifth album Hounds of Love. This was a collection of songs around one theme, in this instance someone lost at sea, floating in the water through the night with their mind wandering, contemplating, amongst other things, their own death. 20 years later, disc two of Aerial (A Sky of Honey) similarly, was a song-cycle celebrating the elements of the sun, the sky and the sea in a 24 hour period.

Cut to 2011 and Kate bush has returned with 50 Words For Snow, a new studio album with a collection of songs themed around snow and snowfall.

Although there are only seven tracks on the album, it runs for 65 minutes, with the shortest track timing in at 6.49 and track three – Misty – taking a eyebrow raising 13 minutes to reach it’s conclusion.

The tone is set immediately by the first track, Snowflake. Delicate, hypnotic, twinkling piano, with low-level ambient noise. Kate’s son Albert (Bertie from Aerial) sings lead vocal on this track and is the snowflake in question “I was born in a cloud… now I am falling” with Kate joining in mournfully on the chorus, with a refrain of ‘The world is so loud, keep falling and I’ll find you’. This song is both intimate and mesmerising but chugs along at a snail’s pace. Not one to listen to if you’ve had a hard day at the office, you’ll be drifting off into a snowy sleep, such is the meditative nature of the music here.

Lake Tahoe concerns the legend of a woman lost in a lake while calling for her dog. Again, another slow piano-led number where Kate shares vocal duties with the operatic Stefan Roberts & Michale Wood. There is some fine Twin Peaks-style orchestration on this track courtesy of Jonathan Tunick. Another delicate number, that builds up into something rather haunting.

Kate Bush has never been afraid to write and sing about sensuality, and even from the very beginning, songs like Feel It and The Warm Room had many a teenager getting rather hot under the collar. So it should come as no surprise that the long track on the album, Misty, turns the innocent making of a snowman, into something rather more amorous, as Kate sings of how the snowman she has made flies in through her bedroom window and “lies down beside me”. One thing leads to another and soon Kate finds him “melting in my hands”. The next morning the “sheets are soaking” and our icy friend is nowhere to be found. Only Kate Bush could make a song like this work. A bit like Mrs Bartolozzi from Aerial (the ‘washing machine’ song) the success is in her total emotional commitment and conviction in the telling of the story. There isn’t a knowing wink or nod in the direction of the listener.

Wild Man was called the ‘single’ from 50 Words For Snow, but in reality it was a download-only promotional exercise and it limped to no.77 on the UK charts. I guess you are challenging the young single buying audience with a chorus that contains the line “In the remote Garo Hills by Dipu Marak we found footprints in the snow”. Nevertheless, this tale of the Yeti is a welcome change in sound with some orient-inspired keyboard lines, and Andy Fairweather Low joining on chorus vocal duties.

Snowed In At Wheeler Street sees Kate Duet with Elton John. A track about two lovers whose paths cross through space and time, but keep losing track of each other. A great concept, and lyrically satisfying. If you wanted to be pedantic, it’s not really related to the snow/winter theme, but Kate sorts that out with a clever title. Elton’s booming voice isn’t particularly suited to this track and the whole thing does become rather overblown towards the end.

The title track has Stephen Fry (playing the role of Prof. Joseph Yupik) literally listing 50 words for snow (mostly made up) while Kate encourages him “Come on Joe, just 22 to go…”. Enjoyable at first, but gets tedious on repeated listens.

Among Angels completes 50 Words For Snow – a simple piano ballad, which should be an excellent way to end, but it lacks anything close to a memorable melody, and is rambling and forgettable rather than moving and memorable.

With the first four tracks Kate has come up trumps; they are charming, often mesmerising and impeccably performed and produced. However after this point, the quality dips and Elton John sticks out like a snowman’s carrot nose, on Snowed In At Wheeler Street. An intimate song-cycle does not need ‘big’ name guest stars, and one wonders if Kate simply couldn’t resist the chance to work with a hero of hers, rather than letting the material dictate what is needed. The title track is fluffy and lightweight and most disappointingly, the back-to-basics Kate-at-the-piano track, falls rather flat.

Taken as a whole, the album has enough going for it to be deemed a success – very good even – but it lacks songs where the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Nothing really thrills. Thinking back to Kate’s other extended explorations on a theme, there is nothing on 50 Words… that matches the melodic glory of And Dream Of Sheep and Hello Earth from The Ninth Wave (Hounds Of Love), or Sunset and Nocturn from A Sky Of Honey (Aerial). 50 Words… also lacks the musical variety exhibited on both of those records, with Kate choosing, for the most part, to keep things nice and simple with piano to the fore and tasteful orchestrations and arrangements.

The crucial difference with this album is that, unlike both Aerial and Hounds of Love, there is no ‘side one’ of pop songs to balance things out. No King of the Mountain, no Running Up That Hill. Listening to this album made me miss the Kate Bush that can write pointed, interesting,  four minute pop songs, with melodies you can whistle.

On this record we find a maturer Kate. Laid back, relaxed and indulgent (does Misty really need to be over 13 minutes?). Whether this is a specific approach for this project, or what we can expect from here on in, remains to be seen. The songs remain quirky and interesting, and full of ideas and narratives that could have only come from Kate.

In the end this is an enjoyable, often excellent record, that for many artists might be considered a career high. It’s not perfect, but it is here, now, ‘only’ six years after Aerial. Ultimately, 50 Words For Snow feels like a work produced by an artist well within their comfort zone. It’s Kate Bush dressed in a woolly hat, mittens and a big furry coat. Snug, warm and content.

Rating: 7/10

50 Words For Snow is out now. Buy it on vinyl or CD.

 

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[…] back on the concerts, Kate said that after doing two albums [2011’s Director’s Cut and 50 Words For Snow) in “quite quick succession” she “felt like doing something different, that […]

[…] Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and Sting will be among the artists who will contribute music to a new compilation album which is being put together as a tribute to the Dalai Lama who turns 80 on 6 July 2015. The Art Of Peace Foundation’s Songs For Tibet II is a PledgeMusic funded project and what is really interesting – as Rolling Stone reports – is that “the tracks will be a combination of unreleased versions of previously released songs or new recordings“. We have been promised a track listing soon, but assuming that statement is factually correct, then we can expect either something interesting from the archive or new material from Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel et al. Kate hasn’t issued any unheard studio material since 2011′s 50 Words For Snow. […]

[…] four years have been heaven for Kate Bush fans, with two albums in 2011 (Director’s Cut and 50 Words For Snow) and now this year a who-would-have-thought-it live residency at Hammersmith Odeon. The big […]

[…] surprised the world by releasing two albums in one year back in 2011 (Director’s Cut and 50 Words For Snow) Kate Bush has arguably just topped that this morning by announcing that she will play a series of […]

[…] in music, with three albums released in two years, following Director’s Cut and the acclaimed 50 Words For Snow from […]

[…] appearance yesterday when she picked up the Pop Award at the South Bank Sky Arts Awards for her 50 Words For Snow album from last year.  Watch the video below to see her acceptance […]

[…] single couples Lake Tahoe with Among Angels, both tracks taken from Kate’s current album 50 Words For Snow. The single will be limited to 2000 copies and only be available from participating retailers on […]

Steve Marine

I really like the album. Even a lesser Kate Bush album is better than most of the stuff out there. And, with much of her work, I think repeated listens will bring deeper appreciation. I actually really love the Elton John track. My biggest complaint is having her son sing on the lead track. That, more than anything else on the album, is the most indulgent thing on the record.

Bruno MacDonald

I agree with most of your review but think you’ve been over-generous in your summing up. Essentially, this is what the excellent Aerial would have sounded like if she’d not bothered writing any tunes. As you rightly observe, “Listening to this album made me miss the Kate Bush that can write pointed, interesting, for minute pop songs, with melodies you can whistle.” I can’t imagine ever choosing to listen to it rather than anything else she’s done (the dire Director’s Cut apart). And two disappointing albums six months apart confirm that quantity – never exactly something that Kate’s been known for – decidedly does not equal quality.