Friday, November 18, 2011

Just in Time for Winter

"I'd had this idea for some while to do a wintry album, and pretty soon after I started writing for it, I homed in to the idea of snow. It just seemed such a fascinating subject that it was very easy to think of so many ways of writing about it. It's such extraordinary stuff, isn't it? Even a single snowflake, when you look at it under a microscope, is such an incredibly beautiful thing. And apparently they are all different."

– Kate Bush

The season's first snowfall is expected here in the Twin Cities this weekend. I can't say I'm particularly looking forward to it, but I am excited about next Monday, November 21, when the incomparable Kate Bush releases her new album 50 Words for Snow.

I've been an admirer of Kate and her music since
my high school days in Australia, where her debut single, "Wuthering Heights," was a Number One hit in 1978. I must admit I wasn't that impressed by her 2005 album Aerial (although one track from it did inspire a homily of mine!), nor her more recent collection of "reinterpretations" of a number of tracks from 1989's The Sensual World and 1993's The Red Shoes.

Still, we're talking KATE BUSH here – an artist who is both hugely influential and a one-of-a-kind. Any new release from her is an event, especially since her output in recent decades has been far from prolific.

From what I've read and heard, 50 Words of Snow is a typical Kate Bush affair – idiosyncratic, hauntingly beautiful, and full of surprises! The first track released from the album is "Wild Man," described by Priya Elan of New Musical Express as "Bush's beautiful Yeti ode."

Bush's whispered vocal delivery of the lyrics (which are full of geographical intrigue and century old myth) is full of the right balance of fear, intrigue and empathy towards the plight of the shadowy figure ("I can hear your cry/Echoing around the mountain side/You sound lonely," she sings).

As for the chorus, it bursts forth mid-eruption; a choir of strange voices; echoing the 'Wild Man''s own explosion out of habitation into civilization in the narrative of the song. Bush tackles this by a multiple layering of voices, creating several personas and the atmosphere of a village set adrift by the sudden intrusion. It's a style which recalls some of her most classic work.

With Friday evenings often being "music night" here at The Wild Reed, I thought I'd share this particular track from Kate Bush's 50 Words for Snow, along with a excerpts from a number of reviews of the album. Enjoy!

They call you an animal, the Kangchenjunga Demon,
Wild Man, Metoh-Kangmi.
Lying in my tent, I can hear your cry
echoing round the mountainside.
You sound lonely.

While crossing the Lhakpa-La
something jumped down from the rocks.
In the remote Garo Hills by Dipu Marak
we found footprints in the snow.

The schoolmaster of Darjeeling
said he saw you by the Tengboche Monastery.
You were playing in the snow.
You were banging on the doors.
You got up on the roof, Roof of the World.
You were pulling up the rhodedendrons.
Loping down the mountain.

They want to know you.
They will hunt you down, then they will kill you.
Run away, run away, run away . . .

While crossing the Lhakpa-La
something jumped down from the rocks.
In the remote Garo Hills by Dipu Marak
we found footprints in the snow.

We found your footprints in the snow.
We brushed them all away . . .

From the Sherpas of Annapurna
to the Rinpoche of Qinghai.
Shepherds from Mount Kailash
to Himachal Pradesh found footprints in the snow.

You’re not a langur monkey
nor a big brown bear.
You’re the Wild Man.

They say they saw you drowned
near the Rongbuk Glacier.
They want to hunt you down.
You’re not an animal.
The Lamas say you’re not an animal.

There are many peculiar things about Kate Bush's 50 Words for Snow. If it's not strictly speaking a Christmas album, it's certainly a seasonal one, and the seasonal album is these days more associated with Justin Bieber than critically acclaimed singer-songwriters following their own wildly idiosyncratic path. It devotes nearly 14 impossibly beautiful minutes to "Misty," a song on which Bush imagines first building a snowman and then, well, humping him, with predictably unhappy consequences: "He is dissolving before me," she sings sadly, not the first lady in history to complain about an evening of passion coming to a premature conclusion. It features a title track that turns out to be more prosaically named than you might expect. Over pattering drums and an almost acid house synth line, Stephen Fry (perhaps possessed by the spirit of his hero Vivian Stanshall's cameo appearance on Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells) enunciates 50 largely made-up synonyms for snow with fruity relish, while Bush offers encouragement from the sidelines: "Come on, man, you've got 44 to go."

. . . 50 Words for Snow is extraordinary business as usual for Bush, meaning it's packed with the kind of ideas you can't imagine anyone else in rock having. Taking notions that look entirely daft on paper and rendering them into astonishing music is very much Bush's signature move. There's something utterly inscrutable and unknowable about how she does it that has nothing to do with her famous aversion to publicity. Better not to worry, to just listen to an album that, like the weather it celebrates, gets under your skin and into your bones.

– Alexis Petridis
The Guardian
November 17, 2011

50 Words for Snow sees Bush devote herself entirely to the impressionistic evocation of winter scenes. It’s perhaps surprising that she hasn’t been moved to embark on such a project earlier … Bush’s habitual provocations to abandon day-to-day concerns while cultivating romantic, internal landscapes have always felt slightly like the work of someone gazing from a window into a blizzard. This, one senses, is her natural territory. . . . Where her past work has often been heavily-layered and breathless, 50 Words for Snow uses negative space to impressive effect; much of the album features little more than voice and flurrying passages of piano which gust across the stave, changing pace and melodic direction as if they’re suddenly hitting updrafts . . . played and arranged so exquisitely that even the most po-faced should be able to acknowledge the scale of its achievement. One struggles to think of a record which calls to mind a particular climate as powerfully as this does. . . .

– Joe Kennedy
The Quietus
November 18, 2011

. . . [T]he individual tracks . . . coalesce gently, like snow gathering in drifts: most consist of simple, unhurried piano parts, underscored by ambient synth pads, strings, and occasionally a touch of jazzy reeds, or Oriental-sounding twang. The result is a lush, immersive work which is sonically more homogeneous than her earlier albums, reflecting the conceptual solidity of its wintry theme, in which fantastical, mythic narratives are allowed to take shape under the cover of its snowy blanket. . . .

– Andy Gill
The Independent
November 18, 2011

Six years after Aerial’s bursts of summer sound, Kate Bush’s winter album arrives, each track exploring the long Christmas months. They reflect a season which brings out the profound and absurd in equal measure – the feelings of longing and loneliness that emerge as the dark nights bed in, the party-hat silliness that pops up when the same nights stretch out. 50 Words for Snow initially aims for the former value, with Bush’s son Bertie taking the opening vocal on "Snowflake." "I was born in a cloud," he sings eerily, like the ghost of Little Lord Fauntleroy; he is constantly falling, all "ice and dust and light". His mother keeps appearing – he sees her "long white neck" – promising to find him, but we don’t find out if she does.

. . . Her voice is noticeably older now, full of earth, heft and husk, and works stunningly well with little more than her piano’s sustain pedal – especially in "Misty," her already widely-commented-upon love song for a snowman. Giving Raymond Briggs’ famous concept an X-rated twist – he is "melting in my hand", the next morning "the sheets are soaking" – its 13 minutes are spellbinding. The album’s finale, "Among Angels," is even better, a torch-song for a friend in need, with a stunning central lyric: "I can see angels standing around you / They shimmer like mirrors in summer / But you don’t know it." Throughout, the piano sets a magical mood, all dark, loud and heavy.

Just after the song’s start, you also hear Bush stop for a second, take her fingers off the keys, and whisper the word "fine." In "Lake Tahoe," the song also breaks suddenly at 8.44, leaving Bush to exhale one sharp, startling breath. 50 Words for Snow may threaten to lose its way in the blizzard sometimes, but it is moments like these – jolting us from her world for a moment, reminding us of how all-embracing her talent can be – that show just how much she can move us with her fire and ice.

– Jude Rogers
The Sublime and the Ridiculous: This is Classic Kate
November 11, 2011

. . . 50 Words For Snow goes beyond good taste, because it is as intriguing and eccentric as it is restrained … Through an artistic process Bush is bringing us up close to a deep aspect of her life, while also capturing the childlike wonder of falling snow. The mood throughout the album is stark and, although it’s a word that gets applied to Kate Bush rather too much, ethereal. There’s a sense that the natural world is home to the mysterious beings that crop up in folklore and fairy tales … Ultimately you have to ask: would 50 Words For Snow stand up, away from the cult of Kate Bush? Yes, because it is odd, beautiful, and quite unlike anything else out there.

– Will Hodgkinson
The Times
November 18, 2011

In seven long tracks, the album does just what the best of Bush's work has done since she burst on the scene, Spandex bat wings flapping, at the dawn of the New Wave era. It melds extravagant tales to unconventional song structures, and spirits the listener away into Bush's distinctive hyperreality.

Each song on Snow grows as if from magic beans from the lush ground of the singer-songwriter's keyboard parts. The music is immersive but spacious, jazz-tinged and lushly electronic – the 53-year-old Bush, a prime inspiration for tech-savvy young auteurs ranging from St. Vincent to hip-hop's Big Boi, pioneered the use of digital samplers in the 1980s and is still an avid aural manipulator. This time around, drummer Steve Gadd is her most important interlocutor – the veteran studio player's gentle but firm touch draws the frame around each of her expanding landscapes. But Bush won't be restricted. Like Mitchell on Don Juan's Restless Daughter, she takes her time and lets her characters lead.

The album's scenarios are as startling as the ones Bush spun in the plastic-fantastic 1980s, when she became famous for taking on myriad alter egos, from Houdini's bride to Wilhelm Reich's son to a whole menagerie of mythical creatures. But the tighter focus of Snow makes it one of Bush's most cohesive works, despite the daunting length of each track. (The shortest is nearly 7 minutes long.) Spinning variations on a theme instead of offering one long narrative, Bush reimagines the concept album as a poet would, connecting its elements with delicate thread.

The opening and closing cuts invoke a chill as they dwell on the ephemeral nature of the life cycle. "Snowflake," which features the choirboy pipes of Bush's 12-year-old son Bertie, gives voice to the melting consciousness of the natural world itself; "Among Angels" reads like the sweetest kind of suicide note. In between there are imagined couplings – with a gender-bending snowman in "Misty," and with a lover found and lost through many reincarnations (and played with brio by Elton John) in "Snowed In At Wheeler Street." The bounding "Wild Man" chases a yeti. . . .

– Ann Powers
NPR Music
November 13, 2011

. . . 50 Words For Snow is an astounding piece of work unlike anything else. Initially baffling and at times so sparse and slight it appears to melt away as soon as the notes are struck, over time it reveals itself to be an incredibly fulfilling and enchanting collection, twinkling with magic and frozen beauty.

– Gavin Cullen
November 16, 2011

Related Off-site Links:
Kate Bush: The Ice Queen of Pop Returns
– Andy Gill (The Independent, November 18, 2011).
Singer-Songwriter Kate Bush Discusses Her Latest Albums and the Creative Process
– Allison Stewart (The Washington Post, November 18, 2011).
A Guide to Kate Bush's Albums
– Fraser McAlpine (Anglophenia, November 14, 2011).
Kate Bush Assures Fans She's Not Wearing Real Fur in New Album's Artwork (October 22, 2011).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Celebrating Bloomsday in St. Paul (& with Kate Bush)
Scaling the Heights
"Rosabelle, Believe . . ."

Opening Image: Lisa Evans.

1 comment:

Fr. Robert W. Caruso said...

Wonderful pictures Michael! This album sounds fascinating. ~Bob