Thursday, November 24, 2011

Just This Side of a Masterpiece: Kate Bush's 50 Words for Snow

Only Kate Bush could come up with a song-cycle CD based around the idea of snow. Her first new material in six years, 50 Words for Snow (EMI, 2011) is simultaneously recognizable as a Kate Bush album and pushing boundaries in her approach to song craft. I've followed her career ever since her first hit single, “Wuthering Heights,” absolutely knocked me out the first time I heard it in 1978. Her soaring soprano – taking on the voice of the ghost Catherine Henshaw (the tragic heroine in Emily Brontë's novel of the same name) as she pleads with Heathcliff to let her in – was nothing like I’d ever heard in a ‘pop’ song before; she was only 18 when she wrote and recorded it. Her chosen themes for her music throughout her career have always been eccentric. She's taken on the personas of soldiers (“Army Dreamers”), the young son of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (“Cloudbusting”), a woman testing the fidelity of her husband (“Babushka”) and more than one character who was seemingly derived from Victorian or Edwardian romantic literature. She has also been influenced by films, such as The Innocents (“The Infant Kiss”), Francois Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black (“The Wedding List”), and horror films (“Hammer Horror”). There is nothing conventional about the material she explores.

Sometimes her material has been downright odd: the song “Pi” on 2005 Aerial CD (it's essentially her singing the numbers for the symbol Pi to its 137th decimal place) is a prime example. So it should come as no surprise that the first song here, “Snowflake,” is sung from the point of view of snow itself; a second song details lovemaking with a slowly melting snowman, “Misty,” and a third, “Wild Man,” examines the discovery and protection of a yeti. But unlike the somewhat blotted Aerial – she’d been away from the music scene for some years when she recorded that and it showed – 50 Words for Snow is just this side of a masterpiece.

Kate Bush
The entire CD is only seven songs, but the shortest is about 7 minutes while the longest is over 13, and every track, save one, works. “Snowflake,” the song from snow’s POV, is actually sung by Bush’s young son, Albert McIntosh (aka, Bertie – a ‘mother’s pride’ song to him was featured on Aeriel called, of course, “Bertie”) with Kate doing the chorus. With largely Bush’s exquisite piano playing and the outstanding drumming of Steve Gadd (his drumming throughout is fantastically propulsive) backing up the choir-boy pretty voice of Bertie, the song shimmers and dances like a just-beginning snowfall. His voice soars off the charts into the upper register when he sings, “I am ice and dust. I am sky.” At “sky” it is like we rocket into the stratosphere as we swirl and spin with him. From this first track, Bush establishes her type of storytelling; you could call them all short stories of a sort. Even the packaging is put together like a tiny book (think of those old Dr. Seuss hardcovers, but smaller) with the lyrics and snow silhouette drawings throughout.

“Lake Tahoe” is an old-fashioned ghost story about the ghost of a woman who is constantly searching for her lost dog, Snowflake (she drowned in the lake looking for him and so she still wanders the shore trying to find him). The off-rhythm, jazz-tinged playing and Bush’s minor chord singing gives the piece an eerie, unreal quality. “Roll his body./Give him eyes./Make him smile for me./Give him life,” is how “Misty” begins. And yes, it is about a woman building and then making love to a snowman. The metaphor she’s playing with here is summarized in the line “I can feel him melting in my hand.” It’s a fine conceit about melting the heart of a ‘cold’ man, but the song did not really need 13:32 to tell its tale. The playing by Bush and Gadd, particularly, is compelling, but it is ultimately the only weak track on an otherwise masterful collection.

“Wild Man” is being touted as the first “single” (it was released prior to the CD launch on Youtube in a pared-down sub-five minutes version – the CD track is over seven minutes in length). On the track, Bush talk-sings the lyrics in a husky voice that suggests someone in the cold relating the story of the discovery of a yeti on a mountain climb. The climbers who find him protect and hide him from those that would exploit him/it. Or perhaps, she’s doing the lyrics ‘sotto voce’ so no outsider can hear. It’s got a compelling musical line, and Bush’s vocal approach is nothing like I’ve heard her do before, but it does have that oddball perspective that she has always been attracted to.

Drummer Steve Gadd
The hands-down masterpiece here is “Snowed in at Wheeler Street” that she sings with Elton John. As I said above, Bush’s song writing has always been influenced by movies, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she got inspiration for this song from The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009) or Darren Aronofsky’s failure The Fountain (2006). The story of the song is eternal lovers who pass in and out of each other’s lives either as they are reincarnated again and again, or have lived long lives - but they keep losing each other (it’s never completely clear). The narrative touches down in Rome when it burned in 64 AD; Paris probably in 1789; London or Berlin in 1942, and finally 9/11 in New York. Bush’s singing is beautiful (and again Gadd’s drumming is revelatory), but it is John’s singing that is truly great. It is without question the best he’s sung in years and perhaps the best ever. Singing in a range lower than we are used to hearing him, John’s yearning and longing for Bush’s character is beautifully and deeply romantic. The only minor flaw is the shouting on both their parts of the final “Don’t want to lose you again.” It’s eight minutes long and it is the type of song you want to keep going.

The title track, “50 Words for Snow,” has fun playing with language, and I think she’s trying to do here, with great success, what she attempted in the flawed “Pi.” The song is a ‘recitation’ by the fictional Professor Joseph Yupik (really Stephen Fry) as, urged on by a throaty and erotically charged Bush, he states the 50 words for snow, including: “whiteout,” “blackbird Braille,” “Wenceslasaire,” “Santanyeroofdikov,” “peDtaH ‘ej chIS qo,” “bad for trains,” and, of course, number 50, “snow.” Where several of the songs play with jazz, this one is polyrhythmic World Music-inspired.

The final track, “Among Angels,” is a pretty, simple love song that brings this fine collection to a enveloping and, yes, loving almost achingly romantic finale. This is the CD for those who love Kate Bush’s music, and have been waiting for after the disappointment of Aerial, or the ‘okay, nicely done, but why’ reinterpretations of her older songs she released earlier this year under the name Director’s Cut. Whether 50 Words for Snow will grab and hold the ears of those just discovering her is another story. Songs from the snow’s point of view, or a woman copulating with a snowman, are not what you hear every day in contemporary music.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information. And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

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