Editor's note: We're thrilled to present a review of the new Kate Bush album by longtime friend of soldout, Atlanta writer and poet Collin Kelley
One word for 50 Words for Snow: Perfection
By Collin Kelley
In 2005, Kate said during an interview that she might surprise everyone and release two albums in one year. Six years later, she made good on the surprise by releasing the fan base-dividing Director’s Cut in the spring and the brilliant (and near universally praised) 50 Words for Snow in the autumn. Although there are just seven songs, the album clocks in at more than hour, with Kate giving each song room to breath and then some. Kate’s piano is front and center on this album and the wintry soundscape she creates is expansive, elegiac and a little melancholy. In a word, perfection.
The sonic and vocal cues from earlier songs that pop up unexpectedly throughout 50 Words for Snow are a treat. The choral voices echoing “Hello Earth” from The Ninth Wave on “Lake Tahoe”; the synth line that runs through “Snowed in at Wheeler Street” is like the wintry cousin of “Aerial,” while the allusion to World War II harkens back to “Heads We’re Dancing”; the cadence of her voice on “Misty” is similar to “A Coral Room”; and there’s plenty of others. And while it recalls those beloved songs, 50 Words is unlike any of the nine Kate album that preceded it.
Besides the later-period Joni Mitchell structured jazz sound, the stark piano that drives the album also reminds me of Craig Armstrong's film scores and 50 Words definitely unfurls in a very cinematic way.
While the album is uniformly fantastic, some tracks do stand out more than others for me. Albert McIntosh’s (Kate’s son, better known as Bertie) lead vocal on “Snowflake” is both fragile and soaring – it’s perfectly imperfect. “I was born in a cloud, now I am falling, I want you to catch me” Albert sings in a trembling, haunted voice while his mother intones only one line for the entire song: “The world is so loud, keep falling, I’ll find you.” A little familial nepotism is welcome when a song is this beautiful.
The improbable affair between a girl and a snowman on “Misty” is the album’s most jazz-influenced song, and I can’t help but hear touches of the Vince Gauraldi Trio and Dave Brubeck, especially in the opening piano notes. The allusions to the snowman “melting in my hand” and soaked sheets certainly adds a hot-and-bothered moment to this snowbound project.
The jewel in the crown is “Snowed In at Wheeler Street,” the duet with Sir Elton John. It’s the tale of time traveling lovers who keep meeting at the most inopportune times, including the burning of Rome, during World War II and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York. There is something theatrical about the song, but it’s also simply beautiful and emotional. The urgency and longing in Kate’s voice is heartbreaking. As a producer, Kate has an incredible knack for coaxing interesting performances from her guest vocalists, and surely this is Elton's most expressive singing in years.
The steady beat of the title track with the imitable Stephen Fry intoning 50 words for snow – both real and invented – while Kate keeps a menacing count in the background is another top track. The fanciful names are often silly (wenceslasire, eiderfalls, stellatundra, zhivagodamarbletash), but Fry infuses them with such gravitas that you'll be stunned they aren’t actually in the dictionary.
“Among Angels” is an absolutely stunning piece of work and features Kate's best vocal performance on the album. The new, husky-voiced Kate we heard on Director’s Cut and throughout most of this album seems to melt away as her voice soars over the heart-rending lyrics: “There's someone who's loved you forever, but you don't know it.” The song begins with a false start and you hear Kate very quietly say “sorry” before she returns to the piano. It’s odd that she left it in, but also charming in an unexplainable way.
If I have any quibble with this album, it’s the sequencing of the last two songs. “Among Angels” closes the album, but when the song ends, it feels as if something more is needed – something with a bit more weight. The title track would have done that nicely, with Fry reaching Number 50 and uttering the word "snow”. Maybe that would have tied too neatly a bow on top of the present to suit Kate, but regardless she has made one of the best albums of her career with 50 Words for Snow. It’s a triumph.