Why do people listen to sad songs when we’re already feeling down? Psychologists believe it’s because we identify with the emotion in the music, which produces an empathetic response. We connect with the music to re-experience the sad feelings so that we might better understand them.
For me, the same is true for certain times of the year. As such, I have a Kate Bush album for every season. If this strikes you as eccentric, consider this is Kate Bush we’re talking about. I only play Never Forever in spring, for example, and Aerial in summer. The Sensual World is definitely an autumn album, as is The Dreaming, which, in addition to being relegated to fall, is preferably listened to at night. Winter, with its dark days and inward turns, is naturally reserved for 50 Words For Snow.
50 Words, released in late November 2011, came on the heels of Director’s Cut, the album of reworked songs from Bush’s back catalog. It was the second long-player to be released that year. Not since The Kick Inside was hurriedly followed by Lionheart in 1978 have Bush fans been treated to two discs so close together. Indeed, the previous album of new material, Aerial, came out six years prior, for which fans waited 12 long years after The Red Shoes.
Instead of feeling rushed, however, 50 Words’ seven songs meander confidently over languid, jazzy grooves. The release was no doubt timed for winter and Christmas shopping, but it’s hardly a commercial record. The shortest song clocks in at nearly seven minutes. And while 50 Words contains moments of Bush’s idiosyncratic weirdness, it coheres around nuanced themes of impermanence and ephemeral love.
The album opens with “Snowflake”, a duet with Bush’s then 13-year-old son Bertie, whose choirboy voice embodies a feathery ice crystal as it floats toward earth. The idea of preexistence – that human souls are extant and waiting to inhabit a mortal body – is evident here. Bertie’s vocal is by turns anxious and ecstatic as he narrates the snowflake’s long journey, seeking its landing. “Be ready to catch me,” he whispers. Bush’s vocal alternates with Bertie’s, offering an encouraging refrain: “The world is so loud / Keep falling / I’ll find you.” The song is all the more poignant because a real-life mother and son sing it. Bush’s voice is a warm and honeyed counterpart to Bertie’s piercing high notes. Wintry synth textures provide a disquieting undertone throughout, underscoring the snowflake’s fleeting life. Once the icy speck touches a human hand, it will melt, dissolving the bond between mother and child.
Many of the songs on 50 Words seem to be about the perils of holding on too tightly. Bush loosens her grip here, ceding some of her obsessive control in the studio and letting the songs breathe. The choice of legendary session drummer Steve Gadd as a collaborator is a perfect one. The dance between Bush’s piano and Gadd’s drumming is the musical heart of the album. Gadd’s light touch leaves ample room for the other players to intermingle rather than hemming them in with a rigid beat. The result is a sound that doesn’t feel overly labored.
“Snowflake” hands off to “Lake Tahoe”, another song of finding and losing. This time it’s a fabled ghost in the form of a woman rising from the cold water searching for her lost dog. Or is the dog (named “Snowflake”) looking for her? The song features a haunting choirboy duo trading stanzas with Kate’s mournful vocal. Though not an official single, “Lake Tahoe” was released as a limited edition vinyl for Record Store Day 2012. An animated video in the style of shadow puppetry coincided with the release.
“Misty” is about the narrator’s tryst with a snowman, which prompted a fair amount of tittering and eye-rolling among reviewers at the time. But longtime Kate Bush fans are accustomed to cornball lyrics and know she has a way of making them sound sincere. The song takes 13-and-a-half minutes to tell its story, but it never lags. Like “the thrill and the hurting” of “Never Be Mine” (from The Sensual World), the track is ultimately about lovers who can’t be together for the long term. The tumbling piano riff echoes the Sisyphean task of rolling the snowman’s body to “give him life”. Even after her snowman has vanished, the speaker goes out on the window ledge searching for him. But the lesson is that a dream lover, even one you crafted in your own image, can melt away in your hands.
“Wild Man” was the only single released off the album, as a shorter “radio edit” version. It concerns yet another spectral being, this time in the form of the mythical Yeti. Andy Fairweather Low (guitar sideman and lead singer of 1960s Welsh band Amen Corner) is Bush’s interlocutor here, providing exotic harmonies. Some people think this narrative is an allegory of Bush herself as a misunderstood recluse, but the theme is broader. The singer is empathic toward the wild beast, cautioning him to run away from the forces who fear and ultimately want to destroy him.
“Snowed in at Wheeler Street” is a duet with Elton John and concerns a time-traveling couple who have “been in love forever”. I admit I’ve usually skipped this song – Elton’s performance is the vocal equivalent of scenery-chewing — but repeated listening this season has led me to reassess the track. The pulsing synth underneath Bush’s spooky piano gives the song urgency and pathos. There’s nothing particularly wintery about the song, save for the title, but its overarching theme is, again, fleeting love. The two can never fully be together, always losing one another to historical circumstances and the cruel intervention of time.
The title track is the penultimate song on the album and serves as comic relief after the melodramatic “Wheeler Street”. Gadd’s rumbling toms and steady hi-hat are reminiscent of his famous intro on another “50” song, Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”. Stephen Fry’s authoritative elocution makes the invented words sound even more preposterous and fun. Words like psychohail, spangladasha, and whippoccino swirl around Gadd’s driving beat, while Kate keeps count and cheers Fry toward the finish: Snow.
“Among Angels” is something of an outlier on the album and acts as a coda to the wintry mix. The recording features only piano and an aching, quiet vocal. The un-dampened piano lets the harmonics ring throughout, giving it a celestial feel. Kate Bush rarely writes from a purely personal point of view, preferring the remove of a fictional character. But “Among Angels” strikes me as an acutely personal song, in the vein of “A Choral Room” from Aerial. Addressed to a friend – or perhaps to the singer herself – it is deeply sympathetic to its subject yet does not purport to know how to heal them. “Only you can do something about it” comes the first line, again, relinquishing control and letting go. Still, the song is quietly assuring: “There’s someone who’s loved you forever / But you don’t know it.” Just as she wills the snowflake to her hand in the opening song, she is there in this moment, however fleeting.
Keep falling; I’ll find you.