I took over this review from someone else who was having trouble articulating their views on this album. I thought I would easily manage to put my thoughts into words, and assumed the mantle of reviewing Kate Bush’s first album of original material in six years (or so) and her third since the year of my birth, but found myself struck by a damnable writer’s block as soon as it came to put proverbial pen to proverbial paper. This album really does, by its avant-garde strangeness, defy summation in words, but I shall struggle onwards to try and make some sort of sense of it all.
I must admit that when I first heard 50 Words for Snow all the way through, I was less than enamoured. To be fair, I did listen to it on what can only be described as the worst, tinniest, most horrible little netbook speakers on earth, so I can’t really be held to blame. When I listened to it on my fancy, expensive noise-cancelling headphones, however, I was immediately swept away on a luscious blizzard into Kate Bush’s strange and intimate winter world. It was like listening to a different album: instead of what I initially heard as sparse, dull, pretentious noodlings, I heard something deep, magical and bizarre. It really says a lot about the intimacy of the album that it took the closeness – the isolation – of over-ear headphones to make me appreciate its stark, pristine beauty.
The album starts as it means to go on, with a nine-minute song about a snowflake… I think. Truthfully, I was too enraptured by the flurries of piano and groundswells of indefinable background noise to appreciate exactly what Bush and her son were actually singing about. Most of the album, like this song, has a woozy, dreamlike quality, almost as if it’s the soundtrack to some warm, magical dream you might have had when you were younger and wrapped up in bed as flurries of snow flittered past your window; you can remember the events, in this case the high notes, the piano parts, the intrusion of strings and other sounds, but not the specifics, i.e. what was being said. This album for me is more about a feeling – an evocation and a sensation – than actual subject matter. It is a concept album in the truest sense, one that is its concept and is not just about it.
From the general, gorgeous malaise of sounds which comprises the first three songs of the album, middle track ‘Lake Tahoe’ (which I assume is about a lake, although I really don’t know) stood out for me, but the other two tracks are equally as impressive. All three embody the qualities I mentioned earlier – all three are serene, gorgeous, dream-like pieces marked by the quality of the musicianship and the beauty of the images they evoke. All three could be regarded as challenging (if you lack the attention span) because of their lack of conventional structure and length. All three are musical journeys with few standout moments, save for the drumming in ‘Misty’, the aforementioned ending of ‘Lake Tahoe’, and her son’s impressive high notes on the first track.
The second half of the album – which has shorter, more conventional songs – is less striking, but just as avant-garde and just as enjoyable. Probably the best song on the entire album is ‘Wild Man’, the opening of which calls to mind Bush’s best work from the 80s and tells the story of, somewhat predictably, a wild man. It’s the only track on the album that really is in keeping with the Kate Bush that I know and love from the Hounds of Love era, so I guess I’m naturally inclined towards liking it more than the more left-field, acoustic, piano-led songs of the first half of the album. From this high point the album progresses to an enjoyable (if slightly baffling) duet with Elton John which tells the story of two old lovers over sparse synth-led instrumentation. Elton’s performance is the best thing he’s done in years, the song is an overall success, and the brilliant emotional outburst at the end serves as a rewarding pay-off after eight minutes of slow burn.
The title track is a genuine oddity. Like, really odd. It’s a grooving, humming, percolating duet with Stephen Fry. Yes, that’s right – Stephen Fry. Don’t worry, he doesn’t sing; but he does list off 50 words for snow, as Bush urges him onwards by informing him of how many words he has left to list off. It could easily have fallen flat on its face, but Bush’s natural weirdness works well with Fry’s kindly, professorial authority to make a song that delights with the sheer number of ways of saying snow (I particularly enjoyed ‘psychohale’ and ‘vanilla swarm’), as well as the driving nature of the music which prevents the staid delivery from becoming tedious.
To come to a summation I had initially feared was beyond me, this is a very good album. Not a great one, no, but a very good one. I’m afraid that my love of Kate Bush is deeply linked to everything she did between ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Cloudbusting’, so I just cannot love anything quite as different as this enough to rate it as a classic. What I can say about it is that my initial gut reaction – that it was dull, long-winded and pretentious – was wrong. This is a deep, beautiful album that is at once both frosty and warm. It reminds me of the sensation of being cosy inside, possibly wrapped up in a blanket with a mug of cocoa, and looking outside to your wintery, snow-covered garden and knowing you’re only separated from the frigid cold by a thin pane of glass. Listening to this album is like going crawling through the wardrobe into Narnia for the first time and finding a snow-covered fantasy world behind the thin facade of the real world. To cut through the over-wrought descriptions and similes, however, this is a genuinely enjoyable album, just don’t go into it expecting anything like ‘Running Up That Hill’… and use decent headphones.