Kate Bush’s Winter Wonderland
Standard song structure need not apply. Verse-chorus-verse, soft-loud-soft dynamics, or any other pattern-driven style that makes pop songs quickly familiar are not in Kate Bush’s realm. For younger listeners new to Bush and her 35-year career, think of a mature Bat for Lashes striving for ambiance over simple tenets of rhythm or melody. But know that Kate Bush is not restricted by such conventions. On her latest album, 50 Words for Snow, seven songs stretch across an hour, averaging about nine minutes each. Each song is an artful meditation built around Bush’s somber voice and tentative piano accompaniment. The sounds evoke a calm, barren white-scape. With so clean a canvas, occasional accents — choral swells, oboe, Elton John — add striking color.
The album appropriately opens with “Snowflake,” sung from the perspective of one such ice crystal falling to earth, and features the preternaturally choir-ready voice of Bush’s 12-year-old son, Bertie. The moody atmosphere continues with “Lake Tahoe” before the middle three songs of the album moves into a more rhythmic and emotionally stirring direction. Session drummer Steve Gadd brings a muted chaos to “Misty,” before Bush pursues a yeti in “Wild Man.” The final, and most dramatic, if maudlin, piece of this act is “Snowed in on Wheeler Street” where two star-crossed lovers recount their intersecting lives always against a backdrop of grand tragedy (the fall of Rome, 9/11). Bush’s duet partner, Elton John, brings a heavy gravitas to his performance not often heard in his own music.
Finally, emotional distance is regained with “50 Words for Snow” featuring a serious — and seriously creepy — Stephen Fry reciting exactly 50 words and phrases in at least three languages before settling on the simplest of all, “snow.” The album then closes by returning to the moodier form of the first two tracks with the mournful “Among Angels.”
50 Words for Snow could easily soundtrack an evening, fading quietly into the background, but to use it like that would be to miss the point. It demands closer — physically closer — listening. Listen with headphones to be immersed in the pristine, cold world Kate Bush has conjured.