To this point, I’ve lived a full and happy life without ever much considering the works of Ms. Kate Bush. I knew the singles, sure, and I had a general understanding of her influence on later art-pop spell-weavers like Bat For Lashes. I knew other people’s covers of her songs, which range from transcendent (Maxwell’s “This Woman’s Work”) to annoying (the Futureheads’ once-hyped “Hounds Of Love”). But the singles, with their twisty helium squeals and their non-Euclidean melodies, never convinced me to dig much further. For the most part, Bush has been, for me, one of those canonical blind spots that everyone has. But her new 50 Words For Snow is the sort of album that convinces skeptics like me to go back and reconsider.
At first glance, 50 Words For Snow comes waving plenty of red flags of pretentiousness. There’s the butt-ugly cover art. There are the virtually-nonexistent song-structures and the sprawling running times; not a single track dips under six minutes, and most go way longer. There are the loony concepts; “Misty,” after all, is a thirteen-and-a-half-minute story-piece about getting it on with a snowman. But when you actually give into the album’s seductive calm, all these weaknesses (except maybe the cover art) become strengths.
Musically, 50 Words For Snow is a spare and delicate album, one that can unfold hazily in the background without demanding your full attention. Instrumentally, it’s arranged to flutter and waft, with its brushstroke drums and its impressionistic splashes of piano and its unobtrusive electronic ripples. Bush’s formidable voice remains in whisper-coo range most of the time, and her simple phrasings are enough to get under your skin. And with her lyrics so deliberately paced-out, it’s easy to forget how specific and absurd those story-songs can be. “He’s dissolving before me,” after all, doesn’t have to be a line about the snowman that her narrator character has just fucked, even though it totally is.
And once the album sinks in, which it will, even the most far-out ideas start to raise goosebumps. Consider, for example, “Wild Man,” on which Bush whispers empathetically to a yeti on the run from human authorities: “They’re gonna hunt you down. You’re not an animal.” Winter is obviously a major theme here, which makes the timing of the album’s release pretty perfect. But the theme of ephemeral love slipping away is even more prevalent. That’s why the snowman melts at the end of “Misty,” never offering any promises that he’ll be back next year like Frosty. That’s why Bush and Elton John, of all possible guests, play lovers unstuck in time, falling through history and always staying just out of each other’s reach. That’s why her son, on opening track “Snowflake,” sings from the perspective of a falling snowflake, its beautiful fall fated to end in nothingness. Once you let the album in, it’s powerful stuff.