Director’s Cut was a nice aside project (as it was intended to be), but what Kate Bush fans really wanted was a return to the studio with all new material. And in 2011, the same year, they got their wish. 50 Words for Snow, her 10th studio album, feels like a bookend in a way no other final albums in the Record Club have so far. Not that we want her to stop making music – god no, her next album can’t come sooner – but it demonstrates a much more obvious progression and contrast to the (amazing) The Kick Inside. Where that record was hysterical, this is calming; where there was tunes there is now tones; where that first record was filled with lush and layered pop, this takes a neoclassical approach, and whereas The Kick Inside was based in a youthful perspective, this is based in a maturity and world-weariness that much of popular music is missing.
It also adds a new dimension to Kate’s last album, Aerial. Not only is this album as themed around winter as Aerial is around summer, it is, pardon the pun, the natural progression of the slower, watery tracks that accompanied that project, to the point that this album contains just seven songs like the first disc of Aerial. And just as songs on that album like “Bertie” are about Kate Bush’s domestic bliss in the course of her twelve year absence, this reveals itself more overtly from the very first track, “Snowflake,” by having said Albert McIntosh sing on the track. It should be said that the eleven year old Bertie’s voice – accompanied by simple repeated piano chords, deliberate strings and slow percussion is incredibly effective in an Aled-Jonesian style (very apt for an album based on snow) and at points sounds remarkably like his mother.
This then moves on to “Lake Tahoe,” perhaps the most ambitious track on the album, based on the story of a dog trying to make its way to its master in a way that will cause one to emote in the same manner they might do for “Jurassic Bark”. This eleven minute brilliance first truly reveals itself fifty seconds in when this almost classical has the kind of clashing and moody notes one would find in a jazz piece. From thereon in Kate’s voice is probably the strongest it is throughout the entire album, from male choral voices and instruments that mesh beautifully together to the distant shouts as the search begins in the tundra.
Kate certainly commits to this love/snow theme, and if you thought that hymns to cloud droplets showed enough emotion in “Snowflake,” “Misty” and its lyrics about making love to a snowman will certainly make up for that. The Snowman this is not. It’s somewhat ridiculous, but commits to that premise in a way only Kate Bush can. It is here I want to take a moment to highlight one of the other stars of this record, percussionist Steve Gadd. Probably one of the most well regarded studio musicians in history, his propriety of “less is more” high hats and occasional fills works complete wonders throughout 50 Words for Snow, but the jazzy goodness greatly show themselves here if only for how long the track is (13:32, the longest single song of Kate Bush’s career thus far).
“Wild Man” kicks off what could be considered the second half of this album, and is easily the closest thing this album has going for it to a pop song. Though I don’t know many major talents whose lead single would be about the Abominable Snowman, I know only Kate Bush whose lyrics would be almost unequivocally empathetic towards it (“I can hear your cry echoing round the mountainside/ You sound lonely.”) The backing of percussion and stringed instruments is the most prominent on here, what with the introduction of guitars and inclusion of actual Christmas bells.
If in The Kick Inside the “Strange Phenomena” explored déjà vu as thoroughly as anyone probably ever could, “Snowed In At Wheeler Street” takes it to its logical conclusion by making both its protagonists literal time travellers, the repetition of their meet ups as prominent as the repetition of the floating and spacy synth chords (“haven’t we met before?”/ “We’ve been in love forever”). When I first heard this song I honestly had no idea who the partner was who Kate Bush was singing, and was actually shocked to discover that the reciprocating voice of love was actually Elton John. Elton is such a curious figure, as the man who can produce some of the most passionate and energetic glam rock tracks is also able to produce some of the most saccharine piano ballads. For what it’s worth, his obvious affection for Kate Bush shows in spade, hers vice-versa, and as a result this duet really, really works.
The title track might actually be my least favourite track on the album, but that isn’t saying much as it’s still very effective. The most conceptual piece on the album, named after the famous lie, this guest stars fellow British treasure Stephen Fry narrating a list of names for so, so real and some made up, as Kate encourages him. These words range from the posh (like “Wenceslas Air”) to the frightening (like “terrorblizzard”) to the silly like (“eraserdust” and “vanilla swarm.”) This would have likely benefitted from being a little shorter and less repetitive, but then that would have probably taken away from the concept. But having Stephen Fry on your album is around a bajillion times better than having an honest-to-god child abuser invade your double album, so bonus points on that front.
This then moves on to the final track of the album, “Among Angels,” which also happens to be the shortest. Just as The Sensual World and Aerial ended discs with beautiful piano ballads confronting the harder elements of life, this here continues that trend with similarly beautiful results. Adding to this mirroring of Aerial, this song is about Kate’s father as “A Coral Room” was about her father (as emphasised by an absolutely gorgeous music video). When those final lyrics conclude, “You might feel it and just not show it,” with those climate strings and soothing piano chords, it would be impossible not to. Although not part of the overall snowy theme – which would be hard to do after your penultimate track is literally words for snow – this still feels like the most perfect and human note to end such a gorgeous sounding album on.
50 Words for Snow is probably the least accessible album of the Kate Bush canon, even more so than The Dreaming. It is slow, full of tone poems as opposed to full blown singles, and can be seen originally to be as cold as the title would imply. But just as Kate mature stance and emotions shines on here, give the record the same am0unt of attention and you will gain deep rewards. And this was one part of a trio of prominent albums by women in 2011, what with 50 Words in constant competition with Adele’s breakthrough 21 and PJ Harvey’s previously covered Let England Shake.
This has been my favourite Record Club thus far, in terms of the amount of quality and seeing the obvious progression of the artist in a graspable amount of material. And whilst I’m somewhat disappointed we won’t have time to cover Bush singles that were not part of albums (though you can discuss them in the comments here), now it is time to move on to something a little bit different. Because Kate Bush is a treasure, and institution. She has been around for decades and is renowned as great. Next time for the Record Club we move on to a newer artist, one who is equally as ambitious, but doesn’t yet have the beneficial consensus of time…
What did you think of the album, though?
Kate Bush Album Rankings
- Hounds of Love
- The Dreaming (finally decided to make up my mind)
- The Sensual World
- 50 Words for Snow
- Never for Ever
- The Kick Inside
- Director’s Cut
- The Red Shoes