50 Words for Snow - ANTI-
FILTER Grade: 78%
By Kyle Lemmon on November 22, 2011
One artist from the past three decades who is a continual bellwether of dissonance and harmony is the reclusive art-rock queen Kate Bush. Her dissonance with pop culture is that of expectation. Her music required patience and a meditative spirit at a time when the Big ’80s kicked in the world’s front door. It was similar to the Auto-Tuned radio beast that some indie listeners wrestle with today. If indie rock were Grecian mythology, Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum would be Zeus and Kate Bush would be Hera.
Hyperbole aside, Bush is an attention-grabbing figure and her 10th album, 50 Words for Snow, continues to provoke in weird ways. The hushed, piano-led paean to the winter elements is her first collection of new material since 2005’s bloated double album Aerial. This new record is a slight seven tracks, but clocks in around 65 minutes.
Bush’s previous 2011 release, Director’s Cut, was a compilation of retooled songs from her exquisite albums The Sensual World and The Red Shoes. The British songwriter took the Director’s Cut title in all seriousness and excised most of the outdated ’80s synths and overcooked studio qualities of those previous releases. The warmer, more acoustic-based compositions were an improvement on some of those fusty compositions. Bush might be exasperating in making her fans wait so long in between releases, but she still has the kick inside to propel her into avant-garde directions. Her approach on Director’s Cut returns with 50 Words for Snow.
This meditative piano suite, “set against a backdrop of falling snow,” holds no quarter for the uninitiated. Bush fans will marvel at how restrained her voice has become with age. On her breakout 1978 hit “Wuthering Heights,” she was a gnarled branch of pitches and high notes, a spiritual precursor to audacious vocalists such as Joanna Newsom. Director’s Cut previewed a turn away from the English singer’s bifurcated self. Whereas before that release she sounded split between the velvetiness of the ’80s and the intricate expressionism of the prog ’70s, she now settles into a ruminative, New Age period.
Only the title track feels truly out of place on the aesthetically uniform release. The self-referencing, existential curio sees Bush collaborating with writer/broadcaster Stephen Fry. The counting down of all 50 words for snow grows tedious by the end of the eight-minute-plus track. Despite having a catchy tribal-rock groove, “50 Words for Snow” typifies an unpredictable career, but won’t be remembered.
The album opens with a better example of Bush’s songcraft. “Snowflake” begins with the lyric, “I was born in a cloud…” Intentional or not, the elemental tip of the hat towards 1985’s “Cloudbusting” provides a pleasant circularity with older material. A sparse tundra of rock instrumentation (drums, bass, guitars) is thankfully not the main attraction here or elsewhere. A dawdling and beautiful dance between Bush’s lullaby voice and sustained piano notes takes center stage throughout the disc.
“Lake Tahoe” tests modern audience’s patience with a Gregorian-chant-like intro. Bush eventually enters with her signature instrument. The piano meanders through the snowdrifts and ghostly trails of the chamber vocal intro follow Bush’s melodic lead. The story seems to center on a dog finding his way home, but like many Bush tunes, the meaning is in the ear of the listener.
“Misty” is more concrete. The Sensual World-esque tune follows a woman’s “only tryst” with a snowman. Bush’s vivid imagery is quite beautiful, if you can get past the comical image of a snowman making love to a human. One of the closing stanzas is poignant: “The sheets are soaking and on my pillow / Dead leaves, bits of twisted branches…”
Two of 50 Words for Snow’s big pop moments come in a package. The synthetic freak-out “Wild Man” is the center of the LP and single. (It’s a tune about the Kanchenjunga demon, aka the Abominable Snowman.) Another is the Elton John guest spot “Snowed In at Wheeler Street.” It contains a reference to another 1985 single (“Running Up That Hill”). Both show that Bush is not just an outlier. She can craft provocative melodies for any decade.
50 Words for Snow ends in a way similar to how it began with “Snowflake.” “Among Angels” is impenitently stark and shows how all humans vacillate “in and out of doubt.” A muted Bush seems as though she’s singing to a deceased close friend. Angels that “shimmer like mirrors in the summer” surround the subject and the ivories play on.
Bush’s return to recorded music is unexpected, sometimes distancing, weird and obdurate. Example: In the liner notes for 50 Words for Snow, Bush gives an “intergalactic thanks” to Marc Okrand, the linguist, scholar and creator of the Klingon language.
Well, Ms. Bush, sometimes I have no idea what planet you’re from, but qatlho’ all the same.