In 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.