For an artist who rarely wallows in the past, Kate Bush made a curious choice earlier this year in releasing Director’s Cut, a reworking of tracks from a pair of decades-old discs, The Sensual World and The Red Shoes. Those two albums are also the most pop-oriented in Bush’s catalog; it’s as though she needed to eulogize her pop career in Director’s Cut before releasing 50 Words For Snow. Her first full-length of new material since 2005, 50 Words is by far the subtlest and least immediately accessible she’s ever made. And while the album is as icy as its title implies, there’s a dormant warmth to 50 Words that compensates for its lack of hooks.The music on 50 Words isn’t straightforward, but its concept is. In fact, the snow motif is the album’s one on-the-nose element: Six of the seven songs dwell on some allusive interpretation of wintry weather. Of course, as metaphors go, snow is as prosaic as it gets. In 50 Words, snow stands in predictably for innocence, emotional distance, otherworldliness, and the ephemeral nature of life and love. On the opener, “Snowflake,” she trawls the eerie lower register of her voice—and then its most piercing falsetto—while imagining, “I was born in a cloud / Now I am falling.” Offscreen, a piano rumbles like subliminal thunder.
The muted, keyboard-haunted mood doesn’t let up during “Lake Tahoe”—although its dizzying dips into atonality are bracing—or “Misty,” a wisp of jazzy, abstract balladry. The album’s nearest thing to a pop single, “Wild Man,” is a relatively upbeat number about tracking Yeti in the Himalayas. Journeyman singer Andy Fairweather Low harmonizes vigorously with Bush, but it’s more of a shouting match than a duet. And on “Snowed In At Wheeler Street,” she enlists one of rock’s most distinctive icons, Elton John; too bad he’s unable to convincingly interpret the maudlin banality of lyrics like, “9/11 in New York, I took your photograph / I still have your smiling face in a heart-shaped frame.”
On “50 Words For Snow,” Bush’s next guest, actor Stephen Fry, is a far better fit. Singing and speaking, the two dovetail into a poetic spiral comprising Bush’s own 50 words for snow—based on the misconception that Eskimos possess a similar number. Driven by pulsing drones and chiming guitar, it’s also hindered by a harsh effect that sounds, cringingly enough, like the barking of a sled dog.
The album’s closer, “Among Angels,” drops things down to a murmur. After a hesitant false start, Bush—alone with a piano—melts the frost and sings with a delicate, shaky sparseness: “I can see angels standing around you / They shimmer like mirrors in summer.” Those angels may well be the final vestige of Kate Bush: Pop Star, a persona she’s always been reluctant to embody. In its place stands an older, wiser, quieter artist who’s just as glistening and mysterious.