To carry on with my Kate Bush worship from my last article, I’d like to give a few thoughts on her last studio record, 50 Words for Snow. Then after all this, I promise I’ll move onto gorging myself on another artist’s discography, okay?
Kate Bush is perhaps Britain’s greatest female musician, maybe even the world’s, and it’s not hard to imagine why, given her myriad of hit records and high critical acclaim. Though she’s best known for singles ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Running Up That Hill’, her extensive catalogue of albums is, on the whole, some of the finest works in all of art pop.
50 Words for Snow, released back in 2011, shows her full transformation from the hotblooded pop diva in her 1978 debut, The Kick Inside, to a more mature and tender songwriter. The album is one of restraint that embodies the spirit of winter with an utmost beauty, showing Kate at her most graceful. Simply put: 50 Words for Snow is as far from pop as Kate Bush has dared to venture, but her artistry has reached its peak.
Like most of her other works, 50 Words for Snow’s songs are isolated works of fiction, but this time with a tight focus on winterish themes, giving the album a more coherent and thematic consistency. From the motherliness of ‘Snowflake’, ‘Among Angels’ and ‘Lake Tahoe’ to the sensuality of ‘Snowed in at Wheeler Street’ and ‘Misty’, Kate Bush retains her signature emotive femininity, but with added tenderness. ‘Wild Man’ and ’50 Words for Snow’ don’t quite induce the same emotional resonance, but the former’s fascination with a yeti in the Himalayas and the latter’s hypnotic linguistics are still conceptually enticing.
50 Words for Snow rewards patience. With song lengths averaging 9 minutes, it’s immediately apparent that Kate Bush is approaching the album with a consciousness regarding its pacing. The thrills of Kate Bush’s explosive performance are instead substituted by the release of each song’s anticipating sections; this slowness brilliantly mirrors the vastness of a tundra or a winter’s eternal snowdrift. Unless you give the record the fullest attention, you may find tracks slipping between your fingers as the nuanced progressions make each song feel shorter than they really are – but when you fully immerse yourself, it’s spellbinding.
Aside from her vivid storytelling, Kate’s strongest asset is her characteristically wild voice. However, in this record, she distances herself from her iconic eccentricity and also utilizes a number of male guest vocalists to great effect. As the twilight years approach, Kate Bush passes the baton of her exuberance to her son, Bertie McIntosh, who provides choirboy vocals in opener ‘Snowflake’ that act as a foil to Kate’s gentle murmurs. The track’s humanizing description of a blizzard settling to tranquil snowfall is the perfect description of Kate’s career; where 50 Words for Snow’s fragility is poles apart from her explosive debut. Simply put: the synergy of Kate and Bertie’s performance is jaw-dropping. ‘Lake Tahoe’s haunting, ghoulish opening is presented through Stefan Robert’s warbling that blurs with Kate’s deep delivery, where her guise as a Victorian ghost reuniting with her dog is charming and homely. Her affectionate coos of “Here boy, oh you’re a good boy” and “Did you miss me?” contrast the eerie painting of the frigid lake; and despite the entire record being frost-touched, the warmth that Kate Bush brings, especially in here, is joyously tear-jerking.
Elton John features to duet with Kate in the time-travelling ballad ‘Snowed in at Wheeler Street’; sadly it’s a track that gets unfittingly overpowering in its finale, producing a crack an otherwise tonally consistent record. However, the passion between both players feels captivating and genuine. British treasure Stephen Fry appears in the title track to provide a softly uttered spoken word segment, enunciating fifty different words for snow under Kate’s numeric commands. Andy Fairweather provides weird backing in the chorus in ‘Wild Man’ that’s almost Bowie-esque; this, twinned with lyricism that outlines the path of the song’s Sasquatch using Tibetan, Chinese and Indian landmarks, sounds otherworldly.
The majority of this record is carried by the soft, flowing repetitions of instrumentation that extend beyond Kate’s vocals; most notably that of sombre pianos, buried drums and strings that bleed through the mix. Where the pianos of ‘Snowflake’, ‘Lake Tahoe’, ‘Among Angels’ and ‘Misty’ are their backbones, outliers ‘Wild Man’ and the title track give a stronger emphasis on drums, guitars and bass – there’s enough variety throughout the album to make each track unique, but not render any completely alienated. ’50 Words for Snow’ deserves special commendation for being the album’s grooviest song; what with its samba-like percussion and jazzy bass licks that still manages to conjure up a mysterious air, mirroring the synonymous lyricism with a hypnotic repetition. Most importantly though, the sparseness of instrumentation accentuates the strength of Kate’s vocals, especially in ‘Snowflake’ and ‘Among Angels’.
50 Words for Snow is a criminally overlooked record, one that I truly believe is Kate Bush’s strongest in terms of conceptual execution, enthralling imagery and atmosphere. The restricted minimalist instrumentation and vocals not only caters more towards those frightened by her past exuberance or who are looking for a more artistic record, but exceeds her past records. I dare say that 50 Words for Snow surpasses the classic Hounds of Love and its less appreciated cousin, The Dreaming.
If Kate Bush never releases another album again, I’m fine with that – 50 Words for Snow, along with Before the Dawn, is a damn, damn fine way to end her legendary legacy with.
It’s simply a masterpiece.