There’s a wonderful moment on “Lake Tahoe” (see above), from Kate Bush‘s 2011 album 50 Words For Snow, when she lifts her fingers from the piano for a moment, sighs exquisitely, then carries on with the plaintive chords that flesh out the song. Forget the tumbling, rumbling timpani, the fragments of lilting flute, the occasional orchestral draws—that’s the moment you realise this album was constructed in a real studio, in real time, with real and unmistakeable instruments.
Through the 1980s, Bush pioneered the use of the Fairlight CMI, an early digital sampling synthesizer which fleshed out the experimental compositions on albums like 1985’s Hounds Of Love. For some artists, the studio becomes their instrument; for Bush, it was the Fairlight. But at the same time, she never let go of her most powerful two tools: her piano, and her voice. Those were the tools that underpinned “The Ninth Wave”, the powerful and career-defining suite that forms the second side of Hounds Of Love.
On her ‘comeback’ album, Aerial, released in 2005 after a twelve-year hiatus, Bush hid her piano pretty well, even as she penned songs that were alternately wittier or more mature than before. That might have been the album’s undoing: the music behind these lengthy ruminations was sophisticated, but drifted towards the forgettable. Tastefully dry crunches of electric guitar; smoothed-out drums; a pace that never rises beyond the incidental. The industry forgave her; she had evolved into a sacred cow.
If Aerial stripped back the artifice of her supposed mythology to reveal the joy she took from mundanity (raising her son Bertie, doing the laundry, worshipping Elvis in the supermarket aisle), then 50 Words For Snow is the album which strips back musically. Never has Bush sounded so naked. That’s not to say the music isn’t complex, however. The way the piano weaves and wends its way around the two voices—those of Kate and Bertie)—in the opener “Snowflake” is rich in subtext. Between the cracks seep organic wafts of electronic resonance; the elder Bush sets the scene; the younger takes on the role of the titular snowflake, on its patient and meandering descent to earth. The next two tracks complete a trio of piano-led numbers thirty-five minutes in length; at its pinnacle is “Misty”, an adult-oriented retelling of Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman. The narrator falls for a snowman; she invites him back in; he melts at her touch. The morning after, soaking sheets are the only trace of their tryst. It’s a haunting tale, and it’s told in such a way that any obvious innuendo is avoided.
Hounds Of Love had a second side consisting of a piano-centred suite; 50 Words For Snow front-loads its wintry equivalent. Its back half is musically more varied: “Wild Man” takes an Irish folk jig on an expedition in the Himalayas, on the hunt for the Yeti, while “Snowed In At Wheeler Street”, a duet with Elton John (!), unfolds over eerily filtered synthesizer pulses. The title track, meanwhile, is lyrically witty but sonically evokes the 1990s paranoia of Massive Attack, with brushed drumming and penetrating, lurking bass-work. The closer, “Among Angels”, is a barely-there performance for piano and ethereal strings. As the song peters out delicately, Bush sings, “There’s someone who’s loved you forever but you don’t know it / You might feel it and just now show it”, beautifully summarising the translucent, watchful and protecting gaze heavenly bodies seem to hold over this album.
It would be tempting to think of 50 Words For Snow as a seasonal gimmick—she has form, after all, having released a Christmas single in 1980, “December Will Be Magic Again“—but to do so having actually listened to this work would be criminal. The timing might have been fitting, but the songs themselves, and the way they fit together into an uneasy, creeping mood, is timeless. If this is the start of an Indian summer for Bush, I don’t care that it started in the depths of winter.
50 Words For Snow by Kate Bush was released in November 2011, on Fish People.