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Kate Bush
50 Words For Snow Joe Kennedy , November 18th, 2011 05:15

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Thanks to Wuthering Heights, Kate Bush will always be connected to Emily Brontë, the author of the novel whose story Bush retold in her debut single. Her tenth studio album, however, is driven by a preoccupation shared with Emily's younger sister. At the beginning of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, the eponymous heroine is found poring over Bewick's History of British Birds, fantasising about the “forlorn regions of dreary space” around the fringes of the Arctic in which seabirds congregate. This “reservoir of frost and snow” fascinates the bleakly meditative Jane, and sets the reader up for a story in which a thaw is rarely apparent; similarly, 50 Words for Snow sees Bush devote herself entirely to the impressionistic evocation of winter scenes.

It's perhaps surprising that she hasn't been moved to embark on such a project earlier. Snow brings about a state of exception in which there's no pressure to exert ourselves on the outside world: instead, it invites contemplativeness and the prioritisation of personal and domestic relationships over professional ones. Bush's habitual provocations to abandon day-to-day concerns while cultivating romantic, internal landscapes have always felt slightly like the work of someone gazing from a window into a blizzard. This, one senses, is her natural territory.

That said, the fundamentals of climate don't lend themselves readily to sonic distillation. There's plenty one can say about snow, but capturing its essence in sound is considerably more challenging. Bush has clearly given this problem due consideration, and produced something which, if not an exact aural equivalent to its theme, clearly takes musical leads from the appropriate atmospheric behaviour. Where her past work has often been heavily-layered and breathless, 50 Words for Snow uses negative space to impressive effect; much of the album features little more than voice and flurrying passages of piano which gust across the stave, changing pace and melodic direction as if they're suddenly hitting updrafts. By and large, even the diversions from this template don't replicate the cramped arrangements of tracks like 'The Sensual World' or 'Hounds of Love', and Bush's trademark massive-sounding percussion is generally absent here.

The album opens with 'Snowflake', an exercise in personification in which Bush adds a chorus to a spoken-word piece – told from the perspective of falling snow – delivered by her son Albert. A barely-varying piano figure is, with the exception of some unintrusive electronics, the only accompaniment to the vocals throughout the ten-minute track, and the outcome recalls the waning phrasing of Michael Nyman or Eno circa Music for Airports. Impressively, this is followed up by a piece which exceeds it in strangeness. On 'Lake Tahoe' birds caw, barely audibly, in the tundra left by the receding piano, a pair of choristers occasionally make aptly religious-sounding contributions, and Bush provides a meandering, striking vocal. The comparison might seem incongruous, but – with the arguable exception of PJ Harvey's Let England Shake – there hasn't been a pop record this intriguingly abstract since Scott Walker's The Drift.

The acid test of a piece of work of this nature is probably whether or not it gets away with things which would be unforgivable elsewhere. When Bush leaves Lake Tahoe for 'Misty', one soon figures out that she's singing about a romantic tryst with, yes, a snowman: in some hands this would be wretchedly cloying, but here it seems utterly convincing as it rolls along on a subtle tumult of percussion and bass (provided by Danny Thompson). Singing about the inevitable tragedy of seasonally-specific relationships isn't the last of the risks taken here, either. 'Snowed in at Wheeler Street' sees Bush duet with none other than Elton John, the kind of move which diminishes expectations radically when announced in a press release. Extraordinarily, she somehow coaxes from Elton a performance which at least partially atones for all that Diana business: he enters the song with a – slightly chilling - 'We've been in love forever', before the two spin out an ambiguous tale of entanglement over a backing track that finally lets the world know what would have happened if Bowie had reworked the second side of Low as an Off-Broadway musical.

The tempo increases only twice throughout. 'Wild Man' does this without disrupting the overall texture of the album; the title track, in which Stephen Fry plays the role of an elderly lexicographer indulging Bush's desire to hear fifty words for snow, represents more of a stylistic fracture. It isn't a bad piece of music as such, but its insistent rhythm feels like an intruder from an earlier record: it's just too busy in the context. Opinion will be divided on Fry's contribution, but it's a relief that, in its wake, sparse closer 'Among Angels' relocates the trajectory set by the earlier songs.

50 Words for Snow is undoubtedly whimsical, but it's played and arranged so exquisitely that even the most po-faced should be able to acknowledge the scale of its achievement. One struggles to think of a record which calls to mind a particular climate as powerfully as this does and, indeed, such comparisons come across as counterintuitive: there's the first Burial album, the great sonic depiction of British drizzle, and Plastikman's undemonstratively excellent Consumed, an echo-heavy prairie panorama of ice and wind. Considering Bush – and, by association, Elton John – in the company of largely instrumental electronic musicians is perhaps itself a slightly whimsical thought experiment, but it does justice to the overwhelming oddness and sonic austerity of this work.

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Tim Russell
Nov 18, 2011 10:43am

"with the arguable exception of PJ Harvey's Let England Shake – there hasn't been a pop record this intriguingly abstract since Scott Walker's The Drift."

In what way is Let England Shake "intriguingly abstract"? It's very, very direct and musically quite conventional in my opinion, certainly in comparison to The Drift, which has few if any parallels in modern music.

And no idea how you can describe The Drift as a "pop record"! It may have been recorded by a former pop star, but that's where any connection to popular music ends.

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Nov 18, 2011 11:07am

I've only given the album a single spin (via the NPR stream) as I don't want to spoil buying it on Monday. I'm old fashioned like that, you know.

Even from that, though, I was pretty struck with the quality of the release which manages to live up to the unfairly high expectations quite admirably. It may only have 7 tracks and these are all epic length but somehow the 70min flies by.

There's something about making the album on a more narrow style, subject wise and sonically, that really allows it to work as a whole. Colour me very happy and wanting a major snowfall this year in order to enjoy it fully....

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Nov 19, 2011 11:26pm

Is Let England Shake abstract? I can't stop playing this thing. Everytime I put something else on it just sounds boring next to this.

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Joe Kennedy
Nov 21, 2011 5:14pm

In reply to Tim Russell:

Hey Tim,

There's probably two questions there; one about 'abstraction', one about 'pop'. Abstraction is a fairly difficult thing to define in music, don't you reckon, and I guess your comment has made me feel slightly guilty for using a term which is a bit catch-all.

I guess you've vaguely provided an answer yourself by referring to Let England Shake as 'very, very direct', which - logically - means that abstraction is akin to indirectness. I'd agree that the music on that record is direct - there's some canny arranging, but it's not really rhythmically or harmonically demanding - but go on to say that that directness is part of the album's weird structure of irony. As the review on here pointed out, the lyrics aren't about war as much as they are about artworks about war, which means that you've got a very deliberately-achieved indirectness counterposing the directness of the music; as such, you feel that the 'Wellington's troops off to Spain'/ sea shanty stylings of the songs are another source that's being quoted. (I guess it was asking us to think about how music etc manipulates us into certain political positions). The directness gets undermined - I don't know, perhaps this is 'conceptual' rather than 'abstract'.

As for The Drift - well, the fact that the third song on the record is about Elvis talking to his stillborn twin suggests that Scott was a bit less willing to sever the umbilical connection to pop than you paint him out to be. For me, the album is full of pop motifs that get broken, distended, perverted (replacing standard percussion with bits of meat, most notoriously, but the guitars at the beginning of the first track sound like very ill cousins of New Wave and the song about Mussolini's mistress is full of sly nods to the romantic tropes of love songs going as far back as you like). Furthermore, where you can understand Stockhausen or Xenakis without pop, I don't think The Drift would make any sense without that frame of reference.

So, perhaps I'm stretching the definition of 'pop' a bit, but there you go. Cheers for the comments.

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Darryl M
Nov 22, 2011 2:51pm

Hey, Joe,

Nice, in-depth review. But I question the challenge you put forth with, "One struggles to think of a record which calls to mind a particular climate as powerfully as this does."

How about the British Northern-winterly "Kingdom of Rust" by Doves?

Or the winter dockland-drizzly "Dead Bees on a Cake" by David Sylvian?

And that’s just off the top of my head.


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Darryl M
Nov 22, 2011 4:31pm

In reply to Darryl M:

Correction: I meant, "Secrets of the Beehive," by David Sylvian.


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Dec 12, 2011 9:19pm

I have liked music by Kate Bush since 1979 and her new album is nice to listen to. I am especially a big fan of Emilie Simon who is similar in music and love her style and I reckon Emilie Simon deserves more recognition especially sounding similar to Kate Bush all Bush fans will like Emilie,it is hard not to.

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