A Change of Season
Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow
ON 21st November…
IN THIS PHOTO: Kate Bush in a promotional image for 50 Words for Snow/PHOTO CREDIT: John Carder Bush
it will be eight years since Kate Bush released her last studio album, 50 Words for Snow. That word, ‘last’, is ambiguous: maybe ‘previous’ is the right word. We don’t know whether 50 Words for Snow is going to be the last-ever Bush album. One assumes not but, before I move on to look at this incredible album, it is worth noting the time period between 2011’s release and now. Many were not sure whether Bush would release an album following 1993’s The Red Shoes. That period of her life was successful, but there was a slight downturn in critical favour. The Red Shoes has some great moments, but it is one of her less-popular albums. She lost her mother in 1992 and split from her long-term boyfriend, Del Palmer (who has worked with her since before her debut in 1978 and is her engineer to this day). It was a tough time and a lot of people who were proclaiming her a genius in 1985 (when she released Hounds of Love) had changed her tune. Such was the intensity of expectation and pressure, that feeling that she might have quit music for good was understandable. Two beautiful seasons arrived over a six-year period. Aerial of 2005 was that ‘comeback’ after a twelve-year gap. Between the time The Red Shoes came out in 1993 and Aerial was released in 2005, not a huge amount had come from Kate Bush in terms of music.
IN THIS PHOTO: Kate Bush in 2005/PHOTO CREDIT: Trevor Leighton/National Portrait Gallery, London
Family commitments, it seemed, were her priority. She had her son, Bertie, in 1998, and was enjoying life as a mum. She was awarded a Q Award in 2001 as Classic Songwriter; she won an Ivor Novello for Outstanding Contribution to Music in 2002 and was seen here and there. Aerial’s arrival in 2005 was surprising for a couple of reasons. Having her back in music after twelve years was a shock and, in typical understated fashion, there was not the same cavalcade of tweets and announcements you’d get from moist artists. Bush put out this wonderful double album and gave a few interviews. It was a relief having her back after all this time. The other shock was the sheer quality and scope of the album. Few would have expected such a coherent, wondrous and immersive album following 1993’s The Red Shoes. Like Hounds of Love, there is a more conventional half and a concept half. The first, A Sea of Honey boasts the single, King of the Mountain, and a typically wonderful and original array of material. The second half, A Sky of Honey, is a suite of songs that acts like a single piece. It is, essentially, the experience of a single summer’s day, starting from one morning and going right through to the next. I associate Aerial with warmth and maternal pride; the dawning of summer and pure tranquility. Aerial is a gorgeous album and one that Bush counts as her favourite.
Many were not expecting an album to come quickly after the labours of Aerial – there was a six-year gap between Aerial’s dawning and a new album arriving. Kate Bush did something in 2011 that she has not done since 1978: she released two studio albums! In interviews (when she came to promote 50 Words for Snow), Bush revealed how amazed she was to have completed two albums in a year. Released in May, 2011, Director’s Cut is a collection of songs reworked by Bush; four tracks from The Sensual World and seven from The Red Shoes. 1989’s The Sensual World has just turned thirty and, whilst it is a great album, perhaps nothing will match Hounds of Love in terms of popularity and impact. Director’s Cut was a chance to improve some of the songs Bush was displeased about; give them more room to breathe and open up – the production of The Red Shoes especially is quite edgy and modern; Bush’s production sound prior to that was very different. Few expected another album so soon after Director’s Cut but, by November, a second was in the world: the gorgeous and sublime 50 Words for Snow. One can only imagine how busy Bush was in 2010 and 2011. Not only was she re-recording some of her older songs and having to get into that headspace; at the same time, she was imagining this completely different album. 50 Words for Snow is almost like winter to Aerial’s summer.
It has been six years since Aerial, so one could understand why Bush wanted to move in a different direction, sonically and thematically. One could definitely see similarities between Aerial and 50 Words for Snow. Both albums take more time to explore songs. Aerial’s two discs meant Bush could put traditional singles alongside a suite of songs that had this arc of a summer’s day. Aerial only contains seven tracks but they are longer and deeper than anything Bush had created to that point. At 6:49, Among Angels is the shortest track; Misty runs at over thirteen minutes. In terms of sound, Bush explored a more wintry, Jazz-tinged soundscape. With Steve Gadd providing pulsing grooves and some exceptional drumming, the cast of musicians (and guests like Stephen Fry (who can be heard on the title track) and Elton John (who duets on Snowed in at Wheeler Street) on 50 Words for Snow brought a combination of Jazz and Chamber Pop to the fore. The album is not packed with singles or sounds anything like what Bush had released before. Inspired by the myth that Eskimos have fifty words for snow, it is fascinating to dive into these songs; some of the most immersive and scenic tales Bush had ever laid down. If records like Hounds of Love are noted for big sounds and a certain intensity, 50 Words for Snow is more minimalist and contains fragmented narratives. Bush features on all the songs, but I think there is greater emphasis on the mood of the songs and compositions rather than the vocals.
IN THIS PHOTO: Kate Bush in a promotional shot for Director’s Cut/PHOTO CREDIT: John Carder Bush
If Hounds of Love is the benchmark and peak of Bush’s career (many would agree with that), then one could put Aerial and 50 Words for Snow pretty close by. Both of her more recent albums scored huge reviews and gained her back a lot of love and praise following The Red Shoes – maybe the time away was what she needed in order to reboot and refocus. Reviews for 50 Words for Snow were universally positive. In this review from Pitchfork, they talk about Bush’s exceptional songcraft and musicianship:
“But Bush continues to infuse her narratives with a beguiling complexity while retaining some old-school directness. Because while most of this album's songs can be easily summarized-- "Snowflake" chronicles the journey of a piece of snow falling to the ground; "Lake Tahoe" tells of a watery spirit searching for her dog; "Misty" is the one about the woman who sleeps with a lusty snowman (!)-- they contain wondrous multitudes thanks to the singer's still-expressive voice and knack for uncanny arrangements. And mood. There's an appealing creepiness that runs through this album, one that recalls the atmospheric and conceptual back half of her 1985 masterpiece Hounds of Love.
While much of 50 Words for Snow conjures a whited-out, dream-like state of disbelief, it's important to note that Bush does everything in her power to make all the shadowy phantoms here feel real. Her best music, this album included, has the effect of putting one in the kind of treasured, child-like space-- not so much innocent as open to imagination-- that never gets old.
"I have a theory that there are parts of our mental worlds that are still based around the age between five and eight, and we just kind of pretend to be grown-up," she recently told The Independent. "Our essence is there in a much more powerful way when we're children, and if you're lucky enough to... hang onto who you are, you do have that at your core for the rest of your life".
Having put out such a fantastic and nuanced album into the world, it is small wonder there were so many effusive and passionate reviews. In their assessment, The Independent had this to say:
“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”.
Not only was 50 Words for Snow a terrific album that, as with all of her albums, took Bush to new places; its creator was very generous with interviews! She had given a few interviews for Aerial and Director’s Cut, but she was incredibly forthcoming and open regarding promotion for 50 Words for Snow. Not only did she invite BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 6 Music to speak; she was giving interviews for the press and international radio. I have included a couple of interviews in this future - but have a look on YouTube and you can hear Bush chatting with so many difference sources. Although a lot of the questions and answers are the same – one would have hoped interviewers would be a bit more imaginative with some of their lines of inquiry -, it was great to hear Bush so engaged and positive about her work.
IN THIS PHOTO: Kate Bush in 2011/PHOTO CREDIT: John Carder Bush
In this feature from The Quietus, they look back at an interview Bush provided them when promoting 50 Words for Snow:
“So Aerial is full of images of clear skies, still water, warm days and it’s full of the bustle of family life and an easy domesticity. 50 Words For Snow is a similarly beautiful album but there is a chill to it - it lacks the warmth of its predecessor. I wondered if it represented another switch from an autobiographical to a narrative song writing approach?
KB: Yeah, I think it’s much more a kind of narrative story-telling piece. I think one of the things I was playing with on the first three tracks was trying to allow the song structure to evolve the story telling process itself; so that it’s not just squashed into three or four minutes, so I could just let the story unfold.
Had you always wanted to do 50 Words For Snow or were you just on a roll after Director’s Cut?
KB: No, they were both records that I’d wanted to do for some time. But obviously I had to get Director’s Cut done before I could start this one... Well, I guess I could have waited until next year but this record had to come out at this time of year, it isn’t the sort of thing I could have put it out in the summer obviously.
Did the snow theme come from an epiphany or a particular grain or idea? Was there one particular day when you happened to be in the snow…
KB: No. I don’t think there was much snow going on through the writing of this… it was more to do with my memories of snow I suppose and the exploration of the images that come with it”.
The snow has melted and, nearly eight years after its release, we await the next movement from Kate Bush. She has not been idle since 2011. In 2014, she performed a sold-out residency at the Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith to rapturous reviews – it was the first time Bush had performed on such a scale since 1979. Before the Dawn was a huge smash, and Bush followed that in 2018 with the release of a book of lyrics, How to Be Invisible, and re-releasing her albums on vinyl (including great box-sets with rarities and B-sides). There is the odd smatter of activity and news regarding Bush; we await a new album and wonder what comes next. That was another reason for this feature: as of today’s date (20th October, 2019), this is the second-longest gap between albums. Maybe 2020 will bring new music; perhaps it will be a few more years. Not only is there anticipation because Bush’s music is a wonderful thing; 50 Words for Snow is unique and an album that sounds utterly wonderful whatever time of the year you experience it. I feel there will be more material from Kate Bush. In November, we celebrate the anniversaries of Aerial (which is fourteen on 7th) and 50 Words for Snow (eight on 21st). Perhaps the next Kate Bush album will be another autumn release. Who knows?! Her sheer unpredictability and grounded nature is rare in the music; you just know Bush is always thinking about music and working on something! Whilst it is a myth there are fifty words for snow in the Eskimo language, there are many more than fifty words of love we can apply to Kate Bush. And that, now and forever, is most certainly…