Kate Bush’s greatest gift has always been her ability to balance high-concept storytelling with songwriting virtuosity deftly enough that each is compelling completely independent of the other. Her 30-plus-year career boasts a signature hit based on an Emily Bronte novel, a side-long song cycle about drowning, songs from the vantage points of a fetus and of Harry Houdini’s wife, and a disc-long meditation on sunset s —but you don’t need to know any of that for Bush’s music to be affecting. Her music augments her theatrical conceits but is utterly unencumbered by them.
If this were anyone else, the revelation that the British singer’s tenth studio album, 50 Words for Snow contains a 13-minute erotic ode to a snowman would be the indulgence to end all indulgences. But if there’s one thing Kate Bush isn’t, it’s ordinary. There isn’t another singer on the planet that could sell “Misty.” But as she’s aged, her voice has acquired a warmth and depth that makes lines like “His snowy white arms surround me, so cold next to me / I can feel him melting in my hand” not only palatable, but elegant.
As the album’s title would suggest, the rest of its songs keep with the winter theme, but not all of them are that idiosyncratic, at least content-wise. Out of Bush’s catalog, 50 Words for Snow is the album least beholden to traditional song structures. Its seven tracks are lengthy — the shortest clocks in at just under seven minutes — and she takes her time unfolding them. Many of these songs scarcely feature more than Bush and her piano. Her 12-year-old son, Bertie, the subject of a painfully mawkish tribute on her 2005 album Aerial, takes center stage on 50 Words’ opener, “Snowflake,” handling most of the vocals in a boyish soprano. The song is reflective of how most of the album is constructed. Bush’s songs here aren’t built around hooks, but around space and escalating tension. It isn’t until halfway through the eleven-minute runtime of “Lake Tahoe” that drummer Steve Gadd shows himself for the first time on the album.
50 Words for Snow’s centerpiece is “Snowed in at Wheeler Street,” an unlikely duet with Elton John. It’s a story of doomed lovers spread over many decades, and it plays out seemingly in real time, losing and regaining touch from the fall of Rome to 9/11 over a creeping, glacial synth backdrop. Bush and John have a natural chemistry, like two actors in an epic romance film. Both have voices that sound both lived-in and grown-into, far removed from their younger theatrics but no less dramatically alluring.
Most of 50 Words is an evolution of the understated, graceful aesthetic Bush introduced on Aerial, her first album after a 12-year layoff. But there are moments here in which the manic art-rock siren from the 1980s bubbles to the surface. “Wild Man,” the closest thing to a pop song on the album, features some rare rock muscle and the demented, double-tracked vocals that defined albums like The Dreaming and Hounds of Love. The title track, a blizzard of percolating percussion and synth, is built around guest Stephen Fry reciting, yes, fifty words for snow (highlights: “deamondi-pavlova,” “sorbetdeluge,” “bad for trains”), with Bush counting off. But when she occasionally interrupts to egg him on (“Come on, man, just 22 to go”), her voice reaches the demonic heights she occupied in a past life.
While Bush has been more prolific lately than she’s been since the mid-‘80s (50 Words for Snow is her second album of 2011, following Director’s Cut, a set of new reworkings of tracks from The Sensual World and The Red Shoes), her work is no less painstakingly constructed. These tracks are sparse but airtight, haunting but unrelentingly gorgeous, both logical successors to the stunning second half of Aerial and completely unlike anything she’s done. In other words, business as usual for one of the most singularly captivating and influential talents in rock history.
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