"50 Words For Snow" by Kate Bush

November 21, 2011: It was a surreal moment when I arrived home with my copy of “50 Words For Snow,” the new Kate Bush release. I removed the cellophane wrap and put the CD in my player, excited, full of anticipation.

Above: The CD comes in a beautiful glossy, hard-bound book.

And what I heard is well worth the six year wait since her last release, “Aerial.” And just like “Aerial,” this new release is a concept album, a song cycle, much like the second half of “Aerial,” a song cycle Kate called “A Sky of Honey.” There is a wonderful sense of symmetry and completeness when one contemplates both releases: where “A Sky of Honey” explored the sky, the sun, a sensuous warmth, birds and air, and took place during the twenty four hour period of a midsummer day and night—the longest day of the year—“50 Words For Snow” explores its polar opposite, pun intended. This is no coincidence. And it has been released purposefully by Kate in time for winter, to be enjoyed on the longest night of the year. Kate calls her new release “seven songs set against a backdrop of falling snow.”

What struck me first is that she is no longer a “song writer” but a composer. She has moved away from a pop structure and the pieces on “50 Words For Snow” are much more aligned with orchestral and jazz music. This was explored somewhat on “A Sky of Honey” with some longer, expansive songs. But on “50 Words” she is truly taking time and space, using it, letting her ideas, stories, and characters spread out. None of the songs come in at less than seven minutes, with one clocking in at thirteen and change. She is in no hurry. I believe this is a function of age. I find that as I get older, I am more willing to engage in art that requires an investment. The songs on “50 Words” whisper like falling snow and require one to be still and listen. So it makes sense that as Kate ages (she is 53), she is more willing to create music that requires an investment. The vocal lines too have less and less to do with pop and are more akin to opera, with an unfolding musical line instead of a tighter, traditional pop structure. This could have something to do with Kate’s increasingly prose-like lyrics.

Musically, Kate’s piano is the central core (in a review for “50 Words,” Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune says that Kate is “a fine pianist who never overplays, sending out little ripples of notes that act like reassuring beacons…”) but the icy texture for this homage to cold comes from the orchestral arrangements by the legendary and prolific Jonathan Tunick (Stephen Sondheim’s arranger and conductor). The orchestral arrangements are minimal, chilly, and austere with space and cool air around the notes, as though the air itself is frozen and the notes must travel through crystals to get to our ears. The sound is perfectly suited to a set of songs revolving around winter, snow, and the objects, places, and things associated with cold and blizzards. The space around the notes gives us time to hear the softly falling snow.

But the real magic, imagination, and rich emotions come in Kate’s stories and characters. True to form, she uses the natural world and mysticism as springboards. She anthropomorphizes, imbuing unexpected things with life force. Or she fearlessly examines already living things from a different, surprising angle, setting something familiar on its head while our minds reel from this new and precious view. I constantly marvel at the way she comes at things. No one’s mind works the way Kate’s does and we are lucky that she continues to share her vision with the world.

“Snowflake” opens the suite of songs with a lovely, aching tale of a snowflake’s descent to earth. But as I just mentioned, Kate manages to isolate this inanimate object, give it a personality, and make us care about it, a marvelous feat when you consider the sheer number of snowflakes wafting down at any given moment. But as we have always heard, each one is unique: no two snowflakes are alike. Sung in a beautiful choir-boy falsetto by her thirteen year old son, credited in the liner notes as Albert McIntosh, the snowflake is revealed to be an innocent newborn, created in a cloud, but now falling helplessly, perilously. It sees below itself forests, snowdrifts, horses… and the one person who will catch it. Its lifetime unfolds before us as Kate sings a promise in a simple chorus: “The world is so loud. Keep falling. I’ll find you.” The lonely snowflake sings of its yearning, its need to connect: “I can hear people. I think you are near me now…I think I can see you, there’s your long white neck…look up and you’ll see me…in a moment or two I’ll be with you.” This naïve singular vision, this need to be saved, this pining, this unconditional love, this destiny… it is pure, agonizing, bittersweet beauty. What will happen to the snowflake when it lands? I must say that I wept—WEPT—through this opening number, listening to this trembling, hypnotic story from such an intimate and mournful point of view. It is sparse, and delicate like a crystalline snowflake, but so rich and effective.

The mood carries on with “Lake Tahoe,” a tale of a legendary ghost in the frigid waters of this Sierran feature. We discover that the ghost is a woman in Victorian dress who rises up from the waters to call her dog Snowflake. With this, we understand this is how she died: out in the snow, looking for her dog… but then accidentally plunging into the half frozen water of the lake. But Snowflake lived on after his mistress. Kate then tells us of a time when the dog is old and frail, and how he drifts off to sleep to dream of running on a long beach. This is clearly the dog’s death as we are now present for the reunion of woman and dog—“Did you miss me?” she sings to him over high shimmering strings—as she shows him around their new house. “Here’s the kitchen—there’s your basket. Here’s the hall—that’s where you wait for me. Here’s my lap—that’s where you rest your head.” And my weeping continued.
The musical aspect of this song features male sopranos in tight, operatic harmony along with Kate’s now-slightly lower voice. She sings out though, when giving voice to the woman calling out for her dog, in that casual, sing-song way of calling for someone. It so reminds me of the moment in “Under Ice” from “The Ninth Wave” where a far-off voice calls out for our heroine just before she sees herself under the ice. It speaks again of enduring unconditional love, of pining, of trying to connect, of saving someone in peril. The woman is trying to save her dog but ends up being the one in peril. The music shifts and swells within this piece, ghost story, love story—the woman does end up saving her dog as Kate closes the song with a stylized dog vocalization, small and heartbreaking.

Only Kate would think of a love story between a woman and a snowman. In “Misty,” she builds a snowman during the day, accidentally cutting her hand and bleeding on him…and that night, he enters her bedroom through the window amid whorls and swirls of snow to lay down beside her. His breath is misty as she watches him lying in her bed, and he and the song are so christened. She describes the snowman’s body: his ice cream lips, his creamy skin, his snowy white arms. But this is far from being an erotic adventure. The feeling of inevitable destiny between them goes beyond anything physical. We are again looking at a yearning, a pining for some kind of connection. Something mystical, metaphysical reaches out to touch the human world, invited by the human world through Kate's blood and out of her loneliness. It is also a fascinating meditation on the natural world and elemental objects, things that Kate has traditionally, in her own version of an animistic belief system like Shintoism, associated with a sense of magic and spirit. She spends a lot of time describing all the dead leaves, twigs, grasses, and branches in his mouth, and rolled into his body. She sings a tableau of nature suspended in the body of her cold lover. A subtle wobbly, woozy guitar enters the mix when she sings of this. Legendary jazz musician Steve Gadd’s firm but unobtrusive drumming anchors this piece, the first so far to feature an up tempo, relatively speaking, while Kate’s piano is reminiscent of an even more melancholy version of Vince Guaraldi. After the snowman melts, soaking her bed and leaving behind only dead leaves, twigs, grasses, and branches Kate sings of searching for him the next day. Knowing that he was melting, he sacrificed himself to be with her. She cries out his name, “Misty!” while a tense, screeching guitar slips softly into the song. She implores us to help her find him until she realizes that it is still snowing. He must still be out there.
Of course I cannot help but think of THE SNOWMAN, Raymond Briggs’ charming but cosmically sad children’s book and subsequent animated film in which a young boy builds a snowman who comes alive at night. The snowman takes the boy on a flying adventure—in the film, they fly to the North Pole to visit Father Christmas. But in the morning, just like Kate, the boy is utterly grief-stricken to discover that his friend the snowman has melted in the yard.

In the exotic “Wild Man,” Kate takes us on a trek through the Himalayan Mountains in Tibet. Lashing, punishing winds are heard before the song gets underway with a curious, ethnic-sounding instrument (a keyboard effect, I am sure, since I can’t find any mention of a foreign instrument in the credits). This sitar-like sound is a perfect way to suggest a picturesque, far-flung, Asian location. But she speak-sings a troubling story about the hunt for the mythical Yeti (better known as the Abominable Snowman). On an expedition by the Lhakpa-La, she and her fellow climbers find footprints in the snow, and that night while lying in her tent, she can hear the Yeti cry… and she says it sounds lonely. Reports of Yeti sightings trickle down from Darjeeling where the Yeti was seen playing in snow, banging on doors, and pulling up rhododendrons, to the Rongbuk Glacier where the Yeti was reportedly drowned. But Kate finds the humanity in this creature, insisting that the Yeti “is not an animal” to be hunted and slaughtered. Knowing full well that should the Yeti ever be caught, he would surely be killed, Kate and her climbing mates brush away the footprints they come across in the snow, to keep the Yeti hidden and safe. Only Kate could take something like the Yeti, turning him from something “abominable” into something lonely, misunderstood, and noble, worthy of protection like a pure, untouched natural element. Indeed, much like most of the natural elements on our planet, the Yeti is in peril, in need of rescue, connection. He is lonely but can’t connect for fear of being hunted and destroyed. Part of what makes this song so powerful and alluring is the travelogue of hearing all the intriguing Tibetan names of places and people like the Garo Hills or the Ringpoche of Qinghai, all of which Kate delivers with a knowing, confident murmur.
This song is being treated as “the single” from “50 Words” because it comes closest to what could be considered “pop music,” but guest vocalist Andy Fairweather Low’s unique turn on the startling, bursting chorus (sounding like a native Tibetan monk) coupled with the remote, exotic sound will keep it off most of the public’s radar.

Below: stills and a gorgeous, atmospheric animated segment for "Wild Man."

A haunting ostinato synth line starts the highly romantic, bittersweet “Snowed In At Wheeler Street.” The anxious, cello-like sound (indeed, the entire song is steeped in a sort of anxiety and dread) carries this weighty, dark, jazz-infused tune as Kate begins the song by approaching a seeming stranger, asking him, “Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you, but don’t I know you?” This triggers a duet with Elton John (who, despite reports to the contrary, does not dominate the song) in which a kaleidoscope of scenes and images unfold, showing us that this couple have indeed known each other before: from Rome burning, and World War II, to 9/11 in New York, they have lived through it all, over and over, yet somehow cannot stay together—doomed to part again and again. Kate cries out, “I don’t want to lose you, no, not again!” They both pine for a time when they were snowed in at Wheeler Street, trapped by the weather, the world frozen in place, while they stoked the fire to keep warm. If only that moment could be suspended in time, could be set to “repeat” to be lived indefinitely. But Kate sadly observes that the world won’t stop turning. So again, we are presented with the motif of yearning to connect, of being rescued, but being unable to do so.

The title track “50 Words For Snow” plays like a lost Peter Greenaway film, listing, literally, fifty words for snow. Greenaway has a nearly obsessive-compulsive encyclopedic need to catalog, list, record…and by the same token, let’s not forget that Kate did sing, on “Aerial,” the transcendental number pi to the one hundred and sixteenth decimal place! Here, she riffs on the legend that Eskimos have fifty words for snow (she has acknowledged in interviews for this release that the idea of fifty words for snow in the Eskimo language is a myth). If there are, let’s pretend, fifty words in the Eskimo tongue for snow, how many can be found in other languages? She lets one Dr. Joseph Yupik, voiced here by the marvelous Stephen Fry, answer that question by listing out an alternative fifty words for snow over a breathlessly urgent and intoxicating rhythm while Kate keeps count in an ominous, modulated voice. At intervals she chimes in, encouraging, cheering, “Come on Joe, you’ve got 32 to go. Don’t you know it’s not just the Eskimo. Let me hear your fifty words for snow.” This blizzard of words rises over the churning, pulsing music like a snowstorm, turning into a whiteout. Kate’s long love affair with language is evident here as she plays with not only the concept of linguistics (some words are real, some are fabricated) but with onomatopoeia, the sound of a word imitating what it represents. Some of the words are quite humorous (phlegm de neige, whirlissimo, anklebreaker, bad for trains), some are faux-foreign as if spoken by Jim Henson’s Swedish Chef (Santanyeroofdikov, icyskidski, sleetspoot’n), and some sound like actual foreign words (faloop’njoompoola, hironocrashka). Some require thought (sorbetdeluge, terrablizza, eiderfalls), and some are breathtaking in their poetry (vanilla swarm, hunter’s dream, mountainsob, mistraldespair). Kate’s humor is sly in this one: the character of Dr. Joseph Yupik is a nod to the Eskimo. Yupik is the word for the aboriginal people of Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and eastern Siberia… and their language.

Our journey through snow and winter ends with “Among Angels,” a song one might assume, given the theme of the CD, would be about making snow angels. But this is Kate and the song is a pensive moment sounding much like “A Coral Room” from “Aerial” with Kate at the piano as she sings to a friend in need, someone in doubt, in trouble. She says she can see angels around her friend shimmering like mirrors in summer (our only mention of a warmer time on the entire CD). With references to how angels “will carry you o’er the walls” and “there’s someone who’s loved you forever but you just don’t know it…you might feel it and just not show it,” this simple piece must have been inspired by Wim Wenders’ immortal film “Wings of Desire.” In that film set in the divided city of Berlin, angels can pass over The Wall as they choose, and watch humans live their short, messy lives. But sometimes, an angel falls in love with a human and the human might feel it, might feel some kind of yearning, might pine for something they don’t even know exists.

All of the songs on “50 Words For Snow” are about yearning, pining, trying to be rescued from a cosmic loneliness, from isolation, from exile, by reaching out, reaching across, trying to connect—connecting across time, across space, across life and death—connecting from the sky to the earth, from the natural world to the human realm, from mind to mind, heart to heart. “50 Words” is a devastatingly beautiful and emotional experience that only Kate could have created.

Kate Bush wears only synthetic fur.

All images are from Kate's website:
All videos are from Kate's Youtube channel:

If you liked this, read my other essays on Kate's "The Ninth Wave" and "Aerial."

Kate Bush is magic. Kate Bush taught me how to fly.

No comments: