It’s saying something that, in a career that has found room for ruminations on lovestruck ghosts, the secret lives of computers and the inner monologue of a coma patient, 50 Words for Snow is Kate Bush’s most overtly artful record. It’s also her most difficult. For all their lyrical feints toward mysticism, Bush’s early works were still outfitted in the lavish dressings of a pop song, Bush’s mystic, craggy voice nestled deep in a pillow of synths and burbling fretless bass.
On Snow, Bush razes those structures. Gone entirely (or perhaps on loan to Bat for Lashes and the Knife) are the ghostly Fairlights and supernatural synths, replaced by bare, solemn piano, slow-bubbling fretless bass and brush percussion that rustles like dead leaves. It takes a moment to acclimate to: the elegiac nine-minute opener “Snowflake” — which features an appearance by Bush’s teenage son Albert MacIntosh — uses the image of falling snow as a metaphor for loss and separation. (“I am dust, I am ice, I am sky,” MacIntosh sings, to which Bush replies, “Keep falling, I’ll find you.”) The song’s progression is ruthlessly methodical: gentle piano figures flutter slowly downward, the two human voices calling out from the center as if lost in a forest. Throughout, Bush seems to be approaching a kinder version of the kind of post-structuralist pop Scott Walker was uncovering on Tilt, the kind of music where each section of a song has a specific melody, but none of them ever codify around a common refrain. Snow functions more like a lieder than a pop record, its slow, roaming art songs all meditations on a single theme — in this case, loss and temporality, for which snow turns out to be the perfect metaphor. When Sir Elton John shows up on “Snowed in on Wheeler Street,” it’s to play the part of the one who got away, he and Bush exchanging the fraught plea, “I don’t want to lose you” over swirling flurries of piano. The song is another example of Bush’s lyrical savvy and sly knack for symbolism: Their haphazard encounters span decades, and are set against Rome burning, World War II and, finally, September 11.
The album’s fulcrum is, unsurprisingly, the title track, in which Bush counts slowly up to 50 as actor Stephen Fry runs through a list of names for snow, everything from the evocative (“whiteout”) to the poetic (“swans-a-melting”) to the ridiculous (“sleetspoot’n”). From a more ham-handed songwriter, the song would feel like an overt treatise on relativism, but from Bush, it feels slipperier, more magical — less philosophy than shapeshifting. Thirty-three years into her career that has been by no means ordinary, 50 Words for Snow does the unthinkable — it pushes Kate Bush into new territory. In doing so, she’s internalized one of its primary themes: Nothing is forever.