THE COLLAPSE BOARD REVIEW Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow (Fish Music/EMI)
By Petra Davis
There is snow, and there are words. This lengthy, seven-track record, successor to this year’s deck-clearing Director’s Cut, is an album that loves language every bit as much as it loves snow; you can feel delight soaking through the syllables. Shelagh Delaney, the Salford playwright who died this weekend, said of her home town, “The language is alive: it lives and it breathes and you know exactly where it’s coming from: right out of the earth”. Like Delaney, Bush has historically made much of the language of landscape, be it the colonised, broken Dreamtime of 1982’s The Dreaming, or Molly Bloom’s labial, swollen emergence into 1989’s The Sensual World.
This album is no exception; the great majority of tracks are strongly evocative of natural environments. Yet despite settings often as specific as Delaney’s teeming grey Salford – Kangchenjunga’s caves, buried beneath the snow in the roof of the world; glacial Lake Tahoe, where Cousteau is said to have found his white forest of perfectly-preserved lost swimmers – Bush nonetheless keeps these real places at one remove. She seems less preoccupied with location than with dislocation, as though the snow, in hiding the land, revealed a land beyond the land – and in particular the lost, occupied land of the indigenous people Bush invokes here, the Wahoe, the Yupik, the Inuit and the Sami.
50 Words For Snow’s multitude of characters and voices fall from the sky, rise from lakes, wind around trees, are rolled into golems, thick with twigs and stones. Its architecture is granular: the songs borrow ideas, names and settings from one another, crystallising into pairs, triplets, drifts. In the thick of this exchange, people aren’t so recognisable. We might be angels, yetis, snowmen; we are creatures like any other, inescapably mixed in. “I think I can see you,” whispers Bush’s son Bertie in ‘Snowflake’, “there’s your long white neck”. Later, in among the elaborations of the title track, we hear Stephen Fry name this moment: “swans-a-melting”.
Musically, this is an album at last dominated by Bush’s piano and vocal. Where Aerial conjured its perfect summer day with leafy overlay, 50 Words For Snow begins and ends with tracks – ‘Snowflake’ and ‘Among Angels’ – that foreground a seemingly transparent mix of keyboard and voice. Though this may be simpler record than any she’s made for a long time, it’s by no means sparse – Steve Gadd’s drums in particular are extraordinary, spectral and driving at once, and reminiscent of Neil Bullock’s best work on Broadcast’s Haha Sound. The piano parts are lush and warm-sounding, and Bush’s vocals generally tender, though there are exceptions at points in ‘Lake Tahoe’ and ‘Wild Man’ where her shrill top tone is used within a denser arrangement to add drama (“while crossing the Lhakpa-La, something jumped down from the rocks!” she squees joyfully over Andy Fairweather Low in the latter, her tone alone providing the exclamation mark).
There is plenty of room made for guest vocalists, too, some more effective than others. Bertie’s lovely treble, careful and unsure, deserves special mention for his portrayal of a snowflake, whirling down through the atmosphere attempting to find its mate, dreaming of music and dance (“my fabulous dancing, my fleeting song, my twist and shout”). This search for another is given human analogue in ‘Snowed In At Wheeler Street’, which portrays a couple doomed to part again and again through time – though on the face of his performance here, should I ever lose Elton John in the swirl of global history, I might be reluctant to seek him out again. Stephen Fry, by contrast, is relatively restrained in his portrayal of ‘Prof Joseph Yupik’ (a reference to the Siberian indigenous Yupik people), reading out his lovely syllabic trifles, in a tone suggestive of David Attenborough’s work on Björk’s gigantic Biophilia project.
But it’s the narratives that really compel. ‘Lake Tahoe’ describes the reunion between a drowned young swimmer and her dog, Snowflake, and features a pair of classical vocalists in addition to Bush’s lead vocal. Fittingly Twainian in tone, they take the expository stuff, while Bush is in character as the Victorian ghost, rising from the lake to call her dog, over and over, before his death reunites them in blissfully spooky domesticity. Bush describes the things she’s kept for his return to her – the biscuit, the basket, the bone – and shows him round his new home. “Here’s the hall, that’s where you wait for me; here’s the bedroom (you’re not allowed in there),” she explains helpfully, the cheerful, affectionate nonsense we all use on our animals. It should be a joyful scene, but as she repeats the phrase, “you’ve come home, you’ve come home,” the tone of the arrangement changes. The rolling left hand of the piano becomes sinister, the right hand discordant, and the vocal ever more aloof and ghostly. The track ends very far from the strings-and glockenspiel peace of its first few bars. “Just like a cloud that has drowned in the lake,” we are reminded, and the piano reprises a figure from ‘Snowflake’. The pair have not, after all, escaped Lake Tahoe, nor its colonial heritage of frontier anxiety, so similar to that evoked by Aaron Copland’s Piano Sonata, whose mix of concordance and discordance Bush borrows very skilfully here.
Slightly less shivery is ‘Misty’, Bush’s Carterian erotic fairy tale. The piano is far more reassuring in tone, reminiscent of nothing so much as Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Bush’s vocal is rich and round, but there is danger here, too, and transgressive sex in the offing. Bush describes building a snowman which she accidentally animates by bleeding on him, before finding him at her window at night, waiting to deflower her in turn. The scene of their passion is as strange as it is touching, with Bush using evocative, microtonal glissando to describe the snowman “melting in my hand,” and the bedsheets after the act soaking, not with her blood, but with his melted snow. By morning, all that is left to her are the “dead leaves, bits of twisted branches and frozen garden” that she collected as she created her lover. She has consumed him; she has dissolved him. But the snow is still falling, and she is ready to find him again; calling to him, she climbs out of her window. We leave her on the ledge, ready as ever to take a step into the world beyond the world. It’s as good an image as any to describe the courage of Bush’s irreplaceable vision.