Even for an artist whose music has taken more than its fair share of odd twists over the years, Kate Bush’s new album has to rank right up there as being among her strangest. It is also one of her most beautiful, and one that was well worth the wait.
50 Words For Snow, her first album of all new material since 2005’s Aerial, takes a couple of spins for it all to really start to sink in. On an initial listen, the seven songs on this album have the same sort of quietly pleasant, but meandering, innocuous quality you might find on any random piano solo album released on New Age labels like Windham Hill in the seventies.
Sure, they might go down fine with a nice glass of wine next to a warm fireplace. But if you can name that tune in three notes or less the next day, you’ve more than earned that trip to the sudden death round.
Yet, once you get past this simple deception, these are songs — mostly performed solo by Kate Bush on piano and vocals, with minimal accompaniment in a light jazz trio sort of format with bass and drums — that really begin to creep up on you and get under your skin.
Then, they start to haunt you.
The unifying theme of (what else?) snow is equally deceptive. Kate Bush’s “Winter Wonderland” is not the same one you’ll find on some Hallmark holiday greeting card, but rather one littered with ghosts stranded in a purgatory of romantic longing, and almost impossible loneliness and regret.
Ever since she was first discovered as a teenage prodigy by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour back in the seventies, Kate Bush’s music has always had a strangely ethereal quality to it. At it’s best though — particularly as heard on early songs like “Wow” and “The Man With The Child In His Eyes” — Kate Bush’s unearthly soprano voice can also be both wondrously innocent and wildly erotic at the same time (of course, it doesn’t hurt that Kate is also pretty hot).
It’s no mistake that Kate Bush has been oft-cited as a key influence by everyone from Tori Amos to Florence And The Machine.
On 50 Words For Snow, Kate Bush is still walking this same delicate line between rapture and desire, even as she is doing the nasty with Frosty The Snowman on this album’s best track, the oddly beautiful “Misty.” Yet, there is also an undeniable sense of loss here, as Kate feels her icy lover “melting in my hand,” and then wakes up the next morning to find “soaking sheets” and “on my pillow, dead leaves and bits of twisted branches.”
This is about as far removed from Phil Spector’s original girl-group vision of an innocent, Christmas Eve encounter with ol’ Frosty as it gets.
It should also be noted that veteran jazz studio drummer Steve Gadd’s light and airy cymbal brushes provide a perfectly understated musical backdrop here. Although Gadd’s contributions to this album are mostly subtle and nuanced, his musical presence is the most deeply felt (outside that of Kate Bush herself) on virtually every track of this album.
On the opening track “Snowflake,” Kate is still searching for her missing snowman, while lamenting that “the world is so loud, keep falling, I’ll find you.” This same sense of longing takes on another shade on “Snowed In At Wheeler Street,” which finds two star crossed lovers (Kate and guest vocalist Elton John) yearning for what could have been, from when they “met in ’42,” to “9/11 in New York” (there’s that whole ghost thing again).
Elsewhere, Kate Bush finds a little sympathy for Bigfoot on the surprisingly catchy (for this album) “Wild Man,” and plays narrator (in an uncharacteristically deep and sexy voice) to British actor Stephen Fry as he runs down the complete list of “50 Words For Snow” on the title track.
But mostly, this particular snowfall from Kate Bush seems to serve as a metaphor for longing of the romantic variety. It’s never a Merry Christmas when you’re alone and missing your snowman.
But it does make for a very beautiful record, and one well worth the repeated listens it takes to get there.