Album review: Kate Bush, 50 Words for Snow

Kate Bush
Kate Bush
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A meditation on winter gives Kate Bush a chance to stretch her wings and take off on a suite of mature, typically gorgeous – if often bonkers – flights of fancy

THE last time Kate Bush released two albums in one year was back in 1978 when Lionheart was birthed nine months after her astonishing debut The Kick Inside. Given the 12 year silence between The Red Shoes and Aerial, the appearance of her tenth album 50 Words For Snow so fast on the heels of Director’s Cut represents a virtual avalanche of activity.

Bush was working on both these albums simultaneously. Director’s Cut involved re-recording existing material and felt like more of an academic exercise, though it was a welcome opportunity to become reacquainted with old friends. This wintry concept album, however, is all new and completely absorbing, both sonically and emotionally.

Bush has addressed the coldest season before on her 1980 non-album single December Will Be Magic Again and with her distinctly un-Christmassy Christmas TV special from 1979 (there’s some good footage online if you care to dip into the madness). Thirty years on, she is a different singer, with a lower range and more weathered tone. Though still capable of flights of eccentricity, the wonder of her abstract evocation of winter is that it should sound so warm, welcoming and nurturing. Yes, there is some emotional desolation in the lyrics, but the accompanying low-key, almost jazzy piano soundscape is more attuned to the serenity than the harshness of winter.

The album comprises seven lengthy but luxurious piano-led pieces ranging from seven to 14 minutes in length and totalling over an hour of burnished beauty which is as rewarding as her previous celebrated song suites, The Ninth Wave from The Hounds Of Love, with its watery motifs, and A Sky Of Honey, from Aerial, which spans the 24 hours of a summer’s day.

Now that the nights are fair drawing in, she has gathered some respected session players, including drummer Steve Gadd, double bassist Danny Thompson and singer/guitarist Andy Fairweather Low around her piano, alongside a couple of unexpected celebrity guests. But the first cameo appearance on the album goes to her son Bertie, playing a snowflake.

Banish any associations with cringey, interminable school pantos – opening track Snowflake is as soft and inviting as a blanket of fresh snow and takes just the right amount of time to exhale its story. Bertie speaks and sings with glacial purity over comforting, graceful piano while Bush croons in soothing, serene tones “keep falling and I’ll find you”.

These themes of separation and sanctuary recur throughout the stories on this album. Bush’s voice alternates with an elegant choral duet as Lake Tahoe’s sad ghost story of a woman and her dog unfolds with an operatic stateliness and a frosty twinkle to the piano, oh-so-restrained strings and soft, martial drumstrokes.

Misty tells of a close erotic encounter with a snowman, a classically bonkers Bush premise but so sensually told with jazzy piano, drums and vocals which are by turns breathy and fretful that the tryst almost seems credible, becoming a meditation on a cold, incommunicative lover. The story can only end one way, and Bush wakes to find her love has melted away in the night, but the journey to this point is compelling. When an increasingly troubled Bush beseeches “if you’re out there, I’m coming out on the ledge”, it evokes memories of Cathy’s ghost at the window in Wuthering Heights.

For her next unusual foray, she goes yeti spotting in the Himalayas. Wild Man stands out in this otherwise low-key company, rising and falling in pitch and pace to convey both her fascination with the creature and the urgency of her warning, willing its escape.

On Snowed In At Wheeler Street, a couple part and come together multiple times over the centuries, their elusive encounters spanning from ancient Rome to the Second World War and New York on 9/11. With Peter Gabriel presumably otherwise occupied, she duets with Elton John, one of her early musical inspirations but not a man noted for his vocal subtlety. However, he rises to the material, turning in a mature, dramatic baritone performance which is seductive, even soulful as it reaches the emotional conclusion that “I don’t want to lose you again”.

Having already recited pi to however many decimal points on Aerial, Bush recruits Stephen Fry for the purposes of reeling off 50 words for snow on the title track. Fry wraps his tonsils with great relish round some of the more ridiculous epithets (“spangladasha”, anyone?) while Bush stands over him, cracking the whip and counting off his list like a demented cheerleader.

Bush has clearly not lost her peculiar imagination but it is realised with a wonderful, compassionate maturity on this album, which bows out with the shimmering piano requiem Among Angels. There was a time when it seemed that Kate Bush had retired quietly to country living; now we can hopefully look forward to many more years in her singular company.

RATING: ****

• Kate Bush: 50 Words For Snow. Fish People/EMI, £12.99