The point isn’t that Eskimos don’t actually have 50 words for snow. It’s that Kate Bush does.
“Boomerangablanca.” “Blown from polar fur.” “Whippoccino.”
On “50 Words For Snow” -- the title composition of Kate Bush’s quietly magical 10th studio album -- Stephen Fry recites 50 words for snow. “Don't you know it's not just the Eskimo,” Bush dares. “Let me hear your 50 words for snow.” They continue, a veritable blizzard (ha) of childlike linguistic invention with Bush counting along: “Phlegm de neige.” “Psychohail.” “Melt-o-blast.” Funk bass, swirling percussion (courtesy of session master Steve Gadd), and what sounds like a howling Alaskan wind swarm in a rhythmic pocket around Fry’s recital. It’s easily the most immediately legible track on what is a remarkably delicate, often meandering (though never purposeless) song cycle revolving around snow, imagination and longing, set to rich, spiraling piano compositions and deep open spaces.
It’s a myth, you know, that Eskimos have 50 words for snow. Most Eskimo-Aleut languages offer no more distinct words for snow than does English. Bush knows this, I think, and appropriately, most of her words for snow are made up. It’s a decision that reflects well the degree to which 50 Words for Snow regards reality through a kaleidoscope of skepticism. Here more than ever, Bush’s songs exist in the place where reality and fantasy meet and neither quite assumes form. It’s a place where snowmen indulge in one night stands and the Yeti lurks barely out of reach. The point isn’t that the Eskimos don’t know 50 words for snow. It’s that Kate Bush does.
Snow is the basic premise, at least. Bush describes the album as seven songs “set against a backdrop of falling snow.” Six of them lyrically address the overarching wintry motif. The work as a whole, though, seems equally informed by the singer’s longtime obsession with duality. Bush’s breakthrough, Hounds of Love, was a masterpiece in two halves: Side One contains five loosely (barely) related pop songs, while Side Two lurches into a daringly experimental, interconnected song cycle about dreams and near drowning during a trance-like late-night swim. Aerial (2005) reworked the two-halves structure for the double album format. Again, the first half focuses on distinct pop songs while the second, A Sky of Honey, offers a thematically linked tone poem revolving around outdoor splendor on a single summer day.
50 Words of Snow seems to reverse the trend: its opening three pieces, which total a combined 34 minutes, feel like segments of a whole, drawn together by theme, texture, surrealist tone and a storyteller’s patience that Bush has never previously attempted. They are extended mood pieces and ambitious story-songs, set to muted keyboards, faraway string flourishes, sparse percussion, and hushed, perfected vocal whispers. “Snowflake” opens the scene well, placing Bush’s son Albert’s fragile choir-boy voice atop a haunting, recurring piano rumble. Albert imagines himself a snowflake, rushing, “ice and dust and light,” toward earth. “The world is so loud,” Bush soothes. “Keep falling. I'll find you.” “Lake Tahoe”, written about a ghostly Victorian woman crying out for a lost dog, is equally gorgeous, highlighted by vocal work from choral singer Stefan Roberts. At 13 minutes, “Misty” could benefit most from editing, but its powerful jazzy climax -- in which a fleeting affair with a snowman dissolves, quite literally, too soon -- rewards the wait.
Tracks four through seven are shorter, more compact, arguably less thematic. “Wild Man”, the first single, is particularly fantastic: a thrilling and musically tight pop song about a hunt for the Yeti, driven by an infectious synth loop and taut low-register vocal. The search through the Himalayas is derailed by kindness. “They will hunt you down,” Bush warns the wild man. “Run away, run away.”
Much has been made of “Snowed In At Wheeler Street”, the album’s fiercely theatrical love duet with Elton John. “Sorry to bother you,” Bush opens the duet, “but do I know you?” Even she sounds surprised by John’s presence here, tucked in the corner of Bush’s most firmly uncompromising work since -- well, perhaps ever. The song, whose tenuous connection to the wintry motif extends a little farther than its title, pits two impossible lovers against the backdrop of World War II, London smog, “9/11 in New York.” Few, though, seem to note how outright eerie the whole affair is, from the cold, pulsating synths and wonderfully brooding piano work to that tortured refrain: “I don’t want to lose you again.” John jumps an octave on that last line. His voice cracks.
Even without much hold on the album’s snowy theme, the song’s quiet, icy despair is a fine match. Like so much of 50 Words for Snow, “Snowed In At Wheeler Street” is obsessed with things left unseen, unknown, unfelt. Things that cannot be held onto, cannot be found, or perhaps aren’t there at all. A ghostly woman whose lost hound, Snowflake, won’t return. A fleeting sensual encounter with a snowman, “melting, melting, in my hand.” The Yeti who can be tracked but not captured.
Here, it’s a love affair that cannot be. “Can't we just stay there forever?” Bush sighs. “We were so happy.” And yet, “the world won’t stop turning.”
You could argue that “Among Angels”, 50 Words’ closer, is gratuitous. It’s a fair point: “50 Words For Snow” seems the logical album closer, and the project as a whole would be tighter, leaner. “Among Angels” is a straight love song (“I can see angels around you,” Bush sings), and it’s the exception both to the album’s snow motif and the latter half’s punchier, more grounded fare. Musically, it’s barely there: a piano/vocal piece so sparse, and with open spaces so wide, that it calls to mind solo work by Mark Hollis. Unquestionably, it lacks the eclecticism and force of what has come before. But for some, I think, the song’s final moments -- when a weightless bed of strings surrounds Bush’s lingering voice -- will be worth it. “There's someone who's loved you forever, but you don't know it,” the singer croons. “You might feel it and just not show it.” Here, feeling it is enough.