50 Words for Snow

· music ·

Ever since I found out that Kate Bush would be releasing not one but two new albums within a few months of each other, I’ve been waiting impatiently for 50 Words For Snow to be released. As it happened, I was working from home today (the day of release), but I was determined to get my work done before I succumbed to wallowing in the pleasure of listening to the new album. This proved to be very hard, particularly as certain people on Twitter (@HelgeG and @m_s, I’m looking at you!) kept talking about how great it was. Anyway, by exercising inhuman levels of patience and resistance, I managed to hold out until I reached a respectable time to stop work. And then I listened to the whole album. Twice. Then I pulled myself together and started to write this.

Regular readers know how much I love Kate Bush’s work. Anticipating a new album is a curious mixture of pleasure and terror: of course I’m looking forward to hearing her new work, but I’m also terrified that the latest album will reveal that she’s completely lost her touch. So far, this hasn’t happened and 50 Words For Snow has just taken my breath away. Twice. I’m going to be listening to this album a lot.

Where the last album Aerial was all about summer and warmth, lightness and happiness, 50 Words For Snow deals with icy whiteness, cold and longing. It’s not just that it has a winter theme — the whole album has a particular emotional tone which is thrilling and utterly beautiful. I haven’t relistened to Aerial back-to-back with this album, but I think that the two together would be electric, like jumping out of a sauna into an icy lake.

‘Snowflake’ features Kate’s son Bertie, who actually sings the majority of the melody as a snowflake falling to Earth and calling out to Kate. We’ve heard from Bertie before (a few spoken words on Aerial and a vocodered part on Director’s Cut as the voice of the computer), but I think this is the first time we’ve heard his proper singing voice. It could be horribly twee. It could be like an indulgent mother earnestly showing you her child’s latest splodgy finger-painted work and trying to convince you that it shows an advanced appreciation of colour and form. Thankfully it isn’t either of those things. Bertie actually has a rather lovely voice, which is a bit other-worldly, and he has a great sense of restraint and drama. I think he’s going to be a pretty good chip off the old block. It’s also a heart-breaking song. He continually calls out to her to come and find him, and she repeatedly sings:

The world is so loud. Keep falling. I’ll find you.

It might be my over-active imagination, but it seems that this refrain gets more weary and more despairing as time goes on, and the two never actually find one another. I’m not ashamed to say that it reduced me to tears (twice). There are so many beautiful parts of this track, but the part where Bertie delivers the following lines completely undoes me for some reason:

I think I can see you. And your long, white neck

The title track is — on the face of it — a typically wacky Kate Bush attempt to turn an unlikely subject into a great song: Stephen Fry literally recites 50 words (most of them invented) for snow, while Kate counts them and eggs him on. It is certainly playful, and revels in the beauty and complexity of words, but it’s also rather hypnotic and becomes (if you’ll allow me to put on my Pretentious Hat for a moment) a kind of shamanic chant that is rather transporting.

‘Lake Tahoe’ is extraordinary, with its chorus of tenor and counter-tenor and its rather creepy story about a woman searching for her lost dog. It’s so beautifully constructed: quiet and chilly and using silence (which is then filled with crow calls) really effectively. I also love ‘Among Angels’ which is also pervaded by the same sense of just missing out on the love and comfort which is there but out of your reach.

‘Snowed In At Wheeler Street’ is a duet with Elton John. I’m not an Elton fan, and so that filled me with the kind of quiet dread that has previously been reserved for the phrase “featuring Rolf Harris”. However, I’m glad to say that he’s pretty good. Obviously, I would have preferred Kate to duet (again) with Peter Gabriel, but I can’t always get what I want. The song is a kind of time-travelling love story, with our hero and heroine constantly slipping out of each others’ arms and missing one another. Are you sensing a theme here? Again, it’s the kind of thing that only Kate can really pull off.

That brings me to the track which has probably elicited the most comment (and sniggering) among the reviewers: ‘Misty’. In this song, Kate has a one-night stand with a snowman. Really. Imagine, for a moment, that you are a songwriter of a lesser talent than Kate Bush, and you’re composing a song about a night-time assignation between a man and a woman. What kind of imagery would you bring in? Well, how about warmth, heat? Yes, ‘hot’ is good, ‘hot’ is sexy. If you are writing the song from the perspective of the woman, you probably also want the man to be strong and — I don’t want to be indelicate here — have a certain firmness about him. Certainly, you don’t want to have him “melting in my hand”, as that is usually considered… undesirable. Kate manages to invert every sensible thing you would put into a song of this kind and make it extraordinarily brilliant and really rather erotic, even though it is all wrong. She describes the snowman’s mouth:

His crooked mouth is full of dead leaves

It instantly makes you think of that smell of wet, dead leaves, full of rich, sweet humus and a touch of decay. You also remember the cold breath of the start of winter on your face, like kissing “ice-cream lips”. That’s a fairly startling image in such a setting, but somehow it works. Retrieving my Pretentious Hat again, I see it almost as a companion song to ‘Song of Solomon’, as you can read it as being about the difficulty of men opening up to women. Perhaps I’m just reading too much into it, but it’s that kind of album, full of allusion and things shifting away from you.

That brings me back to what I see as the theme of this album: the sense of never being able to quite find someone or something, of them being perpetually just out of reach. Whether it is the impossibility of hearing one particular snowflake fall, or of holding on to your one true love as you travel through time, or even of having a relationship with someone with whom you have incompatible thermal requirements, it’s all about longing and loss. Even 50 Words For Snow can be thought of in this way — you can use all the words you like, but you can’t really capture what snow is like, or how it feels.

I am probably reading far too much into this album, but that’s the way it struck me. It’s as chilly and beautiful and beguiling as the pattern of frost on a window, and you can see all sorts of pictures in it. Just remember to put on a jumper or two before you listen to it.