Saturday, 26 November 2011

Kate Bush - 50 Words For Snow (Album Review 2011)

There has been much talk recently about the death of the album. Kate Bush herself has spoken about this and like many musicians seems willing to accept the changing face of music. But on the evidence of 50 Words For Snow she is not giving up on the format that has shaped the musical world for generations. And six years is an unusually short amount of time to wait for new material. Ignoring the recent Director’s Cut, an album that failed more than it succeeded but Bush deemed necessary to move forward, 2005’s Ariel is still a fascinating and relevant work. It put the blessed songstress back into our hearts.

As you might expect, 50 Words For Snow is a concept album that should, ideally, be listened to in its entirety while allowing individual songs to stand on their own. This is not a continuous narrative set to music. This is not an opera. This is not Mars Volta or Coheed & Cambria. In spite of a theme to bring it all together, this is not bound by it. Kate Bush lets the album breath; to take on a life of its own.

Opener Snowflake is magnificent and easily the best thing Kate Bush has done for decades. A duet with her son Albert, the song explores the concept of coming into a complex world as unique and beautiful object. A subtle and well-judged production provides a gentle touch so that the drama is never overstated. Everything that Kate Bush does has a complexity that isn’t obvious, especially after a first listen. The music surrounding Lake Tahoe is a great example of this. A gorgeous arrangement. To complete a start worthy of any Kate Bush album, Misty is another masterpiece and a modern adult take on The Snowman. Kate’s love affair with the snow is overtly described in lines such as “he is melting in my hand” and “the sheets are soaking”. Bush’s voice moves from naïve innocent to present day earthy rasp over the thirteen-minute duration, right up to the dramatic finale.

Bringing back the concept of the album, Wild Man sounds odd and disjointed as a single but is perfectly placed on the album as the central piece. Snowed In At Wheeler Street brings in Elton John in what is a deliberately showy and over-the-top performance, from both singers. We would expect (and indeed want) nothing else from either performer and the wonderful dramatic piano and crashing cymbals amplify and augment perfectly right to the end.  This is pure theatre and a wonderful love song filled with emotion.

The title track, featuring the sublime tones of Stephen Fry, is very reminiscent of Lemon Jelly’s Return To Patagonia. The approach of fusing music and spoken word is not a new idea but Bush has enlisted the very best. And it works, up to a point – with Bush spurning Fry onward through the words; absurd and intriguing, the only criticism being the over-complication. Just Fry reading to a simpler backing may have worked better but everyone is allowed their moments of self-indulgence. And Kate Bush never misses the opportunity.

50 Words For Snow closes with the delicate Among Angels – a straightforward, shapeless and short (at a mere six and half minutes…) lament that is arguably the best vocal and piano on the album. Bush is deliberately sparse, controlled and evocative: “I can see angels, standing around you…They shimmer, like mirrors…”. Simply beautiful.

50 Words For Snow is proof that the album is alive and well. Taking a concept and weaving it through over an hour of music to retain a central theme and message is a fine art. The feel of the album is exquisitely judged, with deep resonant piano and voice taking centre stage and forming the body of many of the songs. This is another reinvention to compliment a changing voice and personality. Ariel may have returned Kate Bush to our hearts but 50 Words For Snow will keep her there. For a very long time.
-- CS

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