Kate Bush is, for many, a difficult dish to savor. In spite of a generous handful of hits, her music has never been mainstream. Thick, complex, and thoughtful are a few adjectives I’d pluck out of the air. Others might be rhythmic, driving, even sometimes a bit shrill. These qualities are not the stuff of Top Forty bonbons, but rather, they are more mature, “adult” attributes which are often difficult for mass audiences. Throw in her often obscure lyrics and you have all the components of an artist destined to be a cult fave, but little more. In fact, early on I couldn’t really comprehend what she was attempting to do. But with the release of her third or fourth LP, wow, I was converted! A born-again Bushie!
With the debut of 50 Words For Snow late this year, I can reaffirm my affection for her art: I hereby declare that 50 Words is probably her best work since her 1985 Hounds of Love. Like much of that still-astonishing opus, 50 Words is a unified whole, even more integrated than its predecessor. In this fitting and strangely white-hot ode to the mysteries of the winter season, each song develops some aspect of the coldest time of year—snow, isolation, beauty, romance—somehow all bundled into a warm, tidy, flowing package of spare textures, melodies, and meaningful open spaces. Unlike her previous releases which were noted for their dense layering of musical lines, texturally, this record is incredibly simple. Instead of piling on layer after layer of synthesizers and percussion, on 50 Words she often employs just her ethereal voice and piano, perhaps adding a bit of backup chorus, or a bit of punctuation from bass and drums, or an occasional burning guitar lick.
But that voice! That piano! Fortunately, and perhaps as never before on a Bush recording, 50 Words For Snow allows a striking and compelling intimacy with these instruments. The closing selection, “Among Angels”, is the best example of Bush’s new, no-frills approach to production. It’s a hauntingly beautiful homage to love with only the barest string arrangement for sweetening. Her voice is strong, convincing, and her piano is the perfect harmonic rock on which to build this lovely performance.
The guest artist population on 50 Words is minimal. Primarily Bush relies on the always solid Steve Gadd’s precise, understated drumming, former Pentangle legend Danny Thompson’s tasteful underpinnings on the bass, and a bit of guitar from Mr. Bush, Danny McIntosh. The minor roles include Bertie McIntosh, Bush’s son, who adds a vocal solo on “Snowflake”, Andy Fairweather Low who likewise contributes perfect vocal work on “Wild Man”, and Elton John’s miscast vocal portrayal of a time-lost lover on “Snowed In At Wheeler Street”.
The title song, a rather humorous, partly fictional litany of alternative terms for snow, is done in an almost minimalist style with Bush encouraging the “chanter” of the list—British actor Stephen Fry—to keep going until he reaches Number Fifty: “Snow”. It is enchantingly hypnotic, driven by Gadd’s insistent rhythmic ostinato and McIntosh’s piercing guitar, and I found it to be the most interesting cut on the disc.
By the way, this review is of the Anti-Records LP release which includes a CD of the music; very thoughtful. The sound of the LP is rich, rewarding, palpable and far more involving emotionally than the CD. However, the pressing was a bit noisy. Unfortunately, the worst of the static appeared in the ultra quiet last track mentioned above. Apparently, from what I’ve gathered from Web chatter, the noisiness of this Anti pressing is more common than it should be. Too bad.
This is a truly wonderful recording by a truly wonderful artist. Highly recommended. However, be forewarned: if it doesn’t catch you on the first few spins, be patient. By the fifth or sixth, you will be awestruck by the wizardry, charm and accomplishment it contains, becoming, if you are not already, a disciple of the Kate Bush voodoo.