11:35 AM CST, November 18, 2011
3 stars (out of 4)
Only Kate Bush could get away with this: Her new album, “50 Words for Snow” (Fish People), includes a song about making love to a snowman, who melts in her bed, leaving behind only dead leaves and twisted branches.
That would be almost funny if it weren’t so creepy. Yet Bush makes it sound sensual, even erotic, as she luxuriates in soaked sheets and “ice-cream lips.”
The singer does a lot of luxuriating on her 10th album; “50 Words for Snow” spreads seven songs over 65 leisurely minutes, her multi-octave voice and piano mostly at the forefront.
Since the late ‘70s, Bush has been the sole occupant of her little corner of the art-rock world, her lush songs merging stately musicianship and fairy-dust vocals with forward-looking electronic textures. Her lyrics have moved from storybook flights populated with unicorns and demons to more mature expressions of femininity and feminism. Though her commercial successes have been few, Bush exudes a fierce independence as a songwriter-singer-musician-producer and influenced countless artists, including Tori Amos, Florence and the Machine and Joanna Newsom. The last time she toured was in the ‘70s and she does interviews about as often as Chicago turns balmy in January, precisely why Bush remains in demand. She doesn’t focus on accolades or celebrity, but undiluted self-expression.
True to form, “50 Words for Snow” floats in its own enchanted cloud, a song cycle for subzero shut-ins. Each song tosses another blanket atop a feather bed, another log on a fire, a series of stories to send the imagination drifting as winter closes in.
On “Wild Man,” she whispers the line, “The schoolmaster of Darjeeling said he saw you by the Tengboche Monastery,” as if it were a come-on. She maintains that seductive tone while defending the honor of a supernatural being. “You’re not an animal,” she purrs. On “Lake Tahoe,” she’s haunted by a “a woman down there” who occasionally surfaces wearing a Victorian dress and calling to her pet. Yes, we’re definitely in Kate Bush World.
The gorgeous “Snowflake” laments that the mundane, everyday world she longs to escape “is so loud.” “50 Words for Snow” is her antidote. Bush is the rare vocalist with huge range who somehow manages to sound strikingly intimate rather than brassy or overpowering. She’s also a fine pianist who never overplays, sending out little ripples of notes that act like reassuring beacons, a necessity for songs that sometimes wander past 13 minutes. She also uses keyboards to create shimmering effects that suggest distant, flickering lights.
Those elements turn the album’s first half into a nearly perfect mood piece. Then a brief bit of trouble starts. There’s an unfortunate vocal mismatch with the overly dramatic Elton John on “Snowed in at Wheeler Street,” followed by a spoken-word cameo from actor Stephen Fry, in which he runs down the “50 Words For Snow.” The latter has its redeeming qualities: the title is a subtle tip of the hat to Bush’s drummer, Steve Gadd, who played the remarkable drum part on Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”; and Bush flashes her underappreciated sense of humor as she urges on Fry (“Come on, man, you’ve got 44 to go”). But mostly, the guests are a drag.
Fortunately, order is restored when the singer once again has the album all to herself on the closing hymn, “Among Angels.” There’s no better way to ride out the storm.
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