On Kate Bush's first album of new material since Aerial, she takes the more relaxed, discursive style she used on that album and eases it out further, so that despite containing just seven tracks, 50 Words For Snow lasts longer than an hour.
It's something of an exercise in musical evocation too, the individual tracks seeming to coalesce gently, like snow gathering in drifts: most consist of simple, unhurried piano parts, underscored by ambient synth pads, strings, and occasionally a touch of jazzy reeds, or Oriental-sounding twang. The result is a lush, immersive work which is sonically more homogeneous than her earlier albums, reflecting the conceptual solidity of its wintry theme, in which fantastical, mythic narratives are allowed to take shape under the cover of its snowy blanket.
On the opening "Snowflake", it's her son, Bertie, that takes most of the vocals, bringing echoes of the plaintive innocence of Aled Jones's "Walking in the Air" to the song of a snowflake yearning for human contact: "I was born in a cloud/Now I am falling/I want you to catch me." In "Lake Tahoe", Bush's oozing, jazzy delivery, combined with subtle reed textures, strings and an intriguing polyphony of classical backing vocals, lends a monochrome, film noir-ish quality to the ghostly murder mystery. Elsewhere, songs are populated by yetis, time-travellers and sentient snowmen, all half-hidden among the silent clouds of snow, like characters in snow-globes.
At 14 minutes, "Misty" is the longest track, with Steve Gadd's jazzy drumming swirling around the fairy-tale love-tryst between a woman and a snowman, whose inevitable dissolution is evoked in watery slide-guitar akin to a valiha. The empathy between human and non-human extends further in "Wild Man", where the search for a yeti is sketched with the geographical accuracy of an actual Himalayan expedition, Bush's softly voiced verses punctuated by more urgent refrains urging the beast's escape – its capture would mean death for the abominable snowman of myth and legend, now reduced to mere flesh and bone.
Elton John duets on "Snowed in at Wheeler Street", in which a pair of immortal, time-travelling lovers snatch a momentary erotic interlude under the cover of a blizzard, already regretting their inevitable separation as they each track their way through history: "Come with me, I've got some rope, I'll tie us together," sings Bush, as if they were emotional mountaineers. "I don't want to lose you, I don't want to walk into the crowd again."
But it's "50 Words for Snow" itself which offers the most engaging, genial development of the album's wintry theme, its scudding groove assailed by chilly wind as Stephen Fry enunciates the terms – mostly made-up by Bush herself – with quiet relish: "Eiderfalls... Wenceslasair... Vanillaswarm... Icyskidski...", while she stands on the sideline, occasionally jumping in to cajole him, like a coach boosting her player's morale. It's a fitting climax to a seasonal offering that manages to evoke the essential spirit of winter while avoiding all the dog-eared clichés of Christmas albums – or indeed, any overt mention of that particular fairy story. Which is some achievement.
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