Lincoln hasn’t really received any snow yet, but that hasn’t stopped me from constantly returning to the wintry climes that fill up Kate Bush’s 50 Words For Snow. I know 2011 isn’t over yet, and there’s still plenty of time to discover lots of great music this year, but I feel pretty safe in saying that 50 Words For Snow is going to end up being high on my year-end list. It’s the sort of album that puts the rest of the year in context, or more accurately, in its shadow — little else I’ve heard comes close to being as enveloping an experience.
As I wrote in my review for Christ and Pop Culture, “[Y]ou could be forgiven for dismissing the album as pretentious. It is pretentious. It’s also otherworldly, delightful, and constantly arresting.” I’m listening to the Stephen Fry-enhanced title track as I type this, in which Fry recites 50, well, words for snow (e.g., “drifting,” “swans-a-melting,” “icyskidski”) while Kate Bush cheers him on (“C’mon Joe, just you and the Eskimos… C’mon now, just 22 to go… Let me hear your 50 words for snow”). It’s cheesy and goofy, and yet quite entrancing and charming all the same.
However, my favorite song on the album is likely “Snowed in at Wheeler Street.” I confess that when I first heard that Bush would be doing a duet with Sir Elton John, I just wrote it off as typical Kate Bush wackiness. However, “Snowed in at Wheeler Street” gives me chills every time I hear it. When John cries out “I don’t want to lose you again,” it’s the album’s most emotional moment, and one of the most emotional musical moments I’ve heard in a good long while.
But if you still need some additional convincing to pick up this album, here are what some others have said about it…
Obviously, Bush is not setting out to wow us with volume here, but instead she lets these songs stretch out, their pleasures unfolding leisurely and luxuriously. None of the other songs are as fairy tale-ish as “Misty,” I don’t reckon — though there is one that’s all about the Yeti — but they are all about snow, one simple, physical object that unites each of these songs. The album is, in a sense, about snow as a symbolic, physical, historic, mythological, and sensual thing. It considers snow as an idea, and as a tangible object in a physical universe. What this means, I think, is that this is the strangest and most erotic holiday album of all time. I’m half joking — there is only one mention of Christmas here — but half not. The wintery mood here is unshakable, the unwavering focus utterly enthralling. This is a sublime album made of seven extraordinary songs, and it offers true delights of poetry and play that no one but Kate Bush could have devised.
50 Words for Snow is such a strange pop record, it’s all but impossible to find peers. While it shares sheer ambition with Scott Walker’s The Drift and PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, it sounds like neither; Bush’s album is equally startling because its will toward the mysterious and elliptical is balanced by its beguiling accessibility.
The album’s fulcrum is, unsurprisingly, the title track, in which Bush counts slowly up to 50 as actor Stephen Fry runs through a list of names for snow, everything from the evocative (“whiteout”) to the poetic (“swans-a-melting”) to the ridiculous (“sleetspoot’n”). From a more ham-handed songwriter, the song would feel like an overt treatise on relativism, but from Bush, it feels slipperier, more magical — less philosophy than shapeshifting. Thirty-three years into her career that has been by no means ordinary, 50 Words for Snow does the unthinkable — it pushes Kate Bush into new territory. In doing so, she’s internalized one of its primary themes: Nothing is forever.
Snow, Bush’s first album of new material since 2005’s Aerial, is a seven-track, hour-long, moody meditation on love (and of course, snow). “The album, to me, is just very somber and very chill,” he says. “Knowing her music and being a fan, it’s very, very deep Kate Bush for me. It’s concentrated. It’s raw emotion. It’s almost like a scene from her diary — she seems to be in love like a motherfucker. Really, really, really in love.”