Kate Bush: “50 Words for Snow”

There are many profound pleasures offered on the new Kate Bush album, and chief among them, perhaps, is the third song on the set, “Misty”—a song about a woman’s romantic encounter with a snowman. The song begins with the snowman being fashioned in just the same way that you or I or any child would instinctively know to fashion a snowman; it ends with wet sheets, a few twigs and dead leaves that may once have resembled eyes, and a woman’s sorrow. In between, there is rapturous and erotic love. The song is no less powerful because of the sheer strangeness, even ridiculousness, of its premise, and of how these elements fit together. In fact, it may be even more sublime because of it.

And I hasten to add that it really is a song about a woman’s affair with a snowman. The temptation, for some of us, is to read it as a metaphor for mortality—that love is fleeting and in the end we’ll all be reduced to a pile of rubbish and spare parts, remembered only, perhaps, by a lover’s lamentations. And you would be right to say that the song is suggestive of these things—but the snowman is not a symbol. The song doesn’t allow it to be. It is not a song about death, or the finite nature of our love and existence. It’s about a woman who falls in love with (and yes, okay, has sex with) a snowman, and I’m quite charmed by the idea of allowing it to rest as simply that, no further analysis needed.

It’s one of just seven songs on 50 Words for Snow, but the total running time of this disc is an hour and five minutes. 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.

Poetry and play—yes, those are the twin engines here; the long running time of these songs, and their fanciful approximation of snow, suggests that Bush is almost lost in her own world, letting her own imagination run away with her. “Misty” is the third movement in an opening trilogy of songs—what we might call the first act of the record, so united are they in tone—that takes up more than 35 minutes. These three songs are built on little more than Bush’s warm piano, upright bass, and light drum and guitar work. “Lake Tahoe” has some operatic accompaniment, which suggests how regal this is, but for all of the strangeness of this record, it does not ever seem affected or insular the way this kind of art-pop so frequently does. A better indicator of the album’s pleasures is the opener, “Snowflake,” a song about birth and existence that’s sun from the perspective of, yes, a falling snowflake. The music drifts and sways as if to mirror the physical motion of its titular object, and I am, again, adverse to making this into a symbol, except to say that the sonorous promise of “I’ll find you”—uttered several times, with gentle resolve—sets the tone for an album awash in intimacy and romance.

The first three songs are gentle, patient, of a piece; in the three songs that follow, however, the album explodes. You’ve probably heard the first single, “Wild Man,” albeit in an edited form; here it rambles for seven minutes, but is no less potent in its propulsive rap-groove. It is a song about the Yeti as a creature of history and of myth; Bush impresses with all the different words she knows for abominable snowman, but the song isn’t bookish so much as it is awash in wonder.

But the next song is where things really heat up. “Snowed in at Wheeler Street” is a duet with Elton John. It’s a sublimely soulful number in which the two singers play a couple of wandering souls, reunited throughout history and always at the most inopportune times—as Rome burns, as World War II rages, at 9/11—only to lose each other again. Only here, this time, they are snowed in together and determined to never become separate again. Both singers escape fully into their characters and give voice to intense sexual and romantic longing; the song is so hot, it’s a wonder it doesn’t melt everything around it.

The title track, meanwhile, is exactly what it says. Here Bush is joined by Stephen Fry, a raconteur capable of lending gravity to what might otherwise be a profoundly silly endeavor. Here he is called upon to furnish, yes, fifty words for snow; Bush counts for him, and challenges him to keep going. The snowy synonyms alternate between silly and ingenious, clever and profoundly poetic. It’s a celebration of words, of rhythm, and of snow. I imagine some will write it off as silly or indulgent, but the beat—a dance beat, really—make it much more than a novelty.

Then the album ends as quietly as it began, with a song that mentions both angels and summer; you can draw your own inferences here. However you read it, 50 Words for Snow is a true marvel, an album that teases with layers of meaning and a steady stream of ideas but never allows for easy summary. It is evocative, but elusive, and its joys come not in pinning it down but in allowing it to dance in front of you, all of its playful poetry and ravishing romance on display. It’s an album about winter that feels uncommonly warm.

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4 responses to “Kate Bush: “50 Words for Snow””

  1. Paula T Krowllaw says :

    really good review….. i’m resisting listening on the streams but i can last until next week x

  2. hellfried says :

    Having listened to the full stream twice, I am struck by how the premises of these songs could have been culled from a Neil Gaiman anthology; tales of wonder and exquisite strangeness.

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