The muses are often fickle, and continually wooing them back has perplexed even the most gifted pop musicians. Nonstop touring can stifle creativity, but so can long periods away from the star-maker machinery—and that would seem to the hurdle facing Kate Bush. Twelve years passed before she released Aerial in 2005, and six more preceded The Director’s Cut, where she gave a new sound to old songs. The results were mixed, with some renditions paling in comparison to the originals, and fans may have wondered if Bush was biding time until the muses returned.
Well, worry not. Released just months later, 50 Words for Snow is quite simply the work of a major artist who remains at the height of her powers. Lyrics evoking myths or dreams still abound, with strange occurrences happening in snowy, far-off places, but the sonics are mostly more down-to-earth and intimate than on previous records. And on the first half of the record Kate Bush explores musical territory that’s as new as her cast of snowbound characters.
The three long, slow, brooding cuts that open the record feel like a 34-minute suite where acoustic piano and undoctored vocals take center stage regardless of what other instruments (strings, mostly) flit in or out of the soundscape. Here we have the opposite of the heavily overdubbed, sonically treated sound of some of her earlier records, but the sorcery remains. Near the beginning of “Lake Tahoe,” when she sings softly and slowly, “And 2 October 2008 The Absolute Sound you might see a woman down there/They say some days, up she comes, up she rises, as if out of nowhere,” the suspension of disbelief comes easily.
Like the other long opening cuts, “Lake Tahoe” builds at a glacial pace and shows remarkable restraint. At such low volume and with such sparse accompaniment even the softest touches resonate, as when castanets click or when, after the band drops out for a fraction of a second, Bush sighs into the microphone. As Steve Gadd’s crisp and cleanly-recorded drums get underneath “Misty,” the music begins to feel like a drawn-out tease, with Bush taking her own sweet time to deliver some lines. When her voice finally does take flight, as you know it will, the effect is stunning.
Elsewhere we get superb pop songcraft in the form of a powerful leadoff single, “Wild Man,” and the perfectly silly title track, on which a supposed Prof. Joseph Yupiklistshighlyquestionablepseudonyms for snow while Bush goads him on with lyrics like, “Come on Joe, you’ve got 32 to go.” “Among Angels” closes the record in the same reflective mood that opened it. My only reservations about 50 Words for Snow concerns two vocal collaborations. A bit twee, her duet with Elton John is a far cry from “Don’t Give Up,” her 1980s hit with Peter Gabriel. And though conceptually it makes sense for her son to sing lead on the opening track, I’d rather hear a vocalist who’d cause goose bumps if she sang the phonebook and who, as she’s often proven, can conjure up any character she wants.