Review Summary: Wintery domesticity glazed with wonder and delight - an accessible, impressionist concept album.
The focus on enchanting domesticity has proved to provide Kate Bush with the space to think and give her songs the space to breathe. Taking a break of twelve years after her extremely dense, extroverted '80's (The Dreaming, Hounds of Love
), her recent work has proved that she has withdrawn herself from the speed of sound, and it works out splendidly. 2005's Aerial
was a celebration of this domestic impressionism. 50 words for snow
continues in this quiet, warm vein, albeit describing snowy and hibernal themes rather than the summer day on Aerial
's second disc.
The album opens with crystalline, diatonic piano motives descending until they become an earthy motive that's repeated for most of Snowflake
's 9-minute running time. With a soaring, airy vocal by her son Albert it describes two entities in an impossible search for one another: a woman and a single snowflake in a snowdrift. The sadness of this concept and the inconclusiveness of the song may well be one of the saddest and most touching moments in Kate Bush's career.
The second track, Lake Tahoe
also dwells in this particular sadness of eternal craving. Starting with a beautiful, impressionistic but unsettling combination of piano and glockenspiel motives and two historically accurate performers singing a duet describing the song's background, with Bush describing what actually happens. A ghostly women searches for her dog across the lake for ever, and ever, and ever. The 11-minute song is extremely moving and has beautiful but sparse orchestrations by the master of musical theatre orchestration Jonathan Tunick. Bush's slightly-off vocals add to the unsettling nature of the track, when she exclaims that "you've come home".
What follows is Misty
, a very fun example of magic realism in which Bush describes a steamy night with a snowman. The falling midnight jazz chords reminiscent of her work on The Dreaming
's 'All the Love' are stretched to their limits (over thirteen minutes), only rising in volume as the drama of the song unfolds. The song never settles on either major or minor, drifting somewhere in between and it's mesmerizing how compelling the song stays throughout its running time.
has a lyric filled with Tibetan mythical words that are very frustrating if you want to sing along to the song. The catchy guitar riff predominating the number is the first time we really get a 'drive' on this album: it pushes forward and has a less chilly atmosphere than the previous three numbers. It describes a search for the Yeti in which the expedition members erase the traces in order to keep the wild man alive. The synth is dominant on this track as it was on Aerial
, but it works and adds a bit of old-fashioned 80's rock to the track, albeit still quite subduedly.
Whatever you may think of Elton John or his music, his presence as Kate Bush's duet partner on Snowed in at Wheeler Street
doesn't feel out of place and it expands on the first three tracks' theme of impossible searches with a pair of diachronic, immortal lovers who have finally been condemned to one another during a snow storm. The frost is back on this track with an icy, slightly dissonant synth and a piano that sometimes caresses and sometimes pounds passionately with dissonant sonorities underneath the refrain which highlights the sadness and solitude that's a major theme on the album: "I don't want to lose you... again".
The title track is hardly even a song. It's a concept piece over a monotonous guitar, drums and bass motive that sometimes gains, then decreases. Kate's vocal is not much more than counting from one to fifty and the sentence "Come on, man, just [number] more to go", encouraging Stephen Fry to recite 49 synonyms for snow. Some are beautifully ingenious, some bizarrely resourceful and some funnily inventive. Especially when it comes down to the Klingon-language words even Stephen Fry seems to find hard to pronounce it will inspire some delightful giggles, but the thing that's terribly skillful is that it never sounds ridiculous and actually helps to amplify the album's mood.
I've sometimes accused Bush of having maladroit choices of album closers, from the beautiful but morose songs to end The Kick Inside
, Never for Ever
and The Dreaming
to the plain bad songs closing off Hounds of Love
, The Sensual World
and The Red Shoes
. Although the closer here, Among Angels
is also quite sombre, its noirish atmosphere and sparse orchestration in combination with the indecisive lyrics and harmonies leave room for a spark of optimism. This stunning final track nails the atmosphere of the album and stamps it with 'classic'. The sustained last harmony in the strings is one of the most beautiful moments of the album and as indecisive as the direction of the whole song.
So, 50 words for snow
is an intriguing, atmospheric mood piece. An accessible impressionist mood piece which is interested in telling stories, freezing them over and filling them with wonder. The album isn't rock, it isn't pop, it's just plain Kate Bush, with all the wonders of snow, domesticity and cunning eroticism included in its lyrics and its hushed atmosphere. A stunning masterpiece from a woman who, 36 years into her performing career, still manages to surprise.