A couple of years ago I discovered The Essential Winter’s Solstice, two discs of Windham Hill wintertime music at its best, and quietest; it coincided with my attending a Windham Hill holiday concert, which was a beautiful, contemplative evening. That’s where my mind initially goes when I put on Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow for the first time in 4 years. It’s similarly contemplative, and mostly, similarly quiet(ish), anchored by her piano playing and Steve Gadd’s drumming. Mind you, it’s an odd one, very classically Kate: to wit, “Misty” is about a woman having an affair/making love with a snowman, and is almost 14 minutes long to boot, but yet, it’s never boring. In fact, it’s utterly compelling for its entirety. And not only is “Misty” compelling, so is the whole album. The title track is largely drums, treated guitar, and Stephen Fry reciting Kate’s own 50 words for snow, some of which are as made-up as Elizabeth Fraser’s speech. “Snowed in at Wheeler Street” is a duet with, I kid you not, Sir Elton John (one of his finest vocal performances of the past 15 years, easily), about a pair of lovers who’ve been lovers throughout the 20th century, across time and space: how very Winter’s Tale. (Not the film, which I’ve not seen, but the 1983 novel, with which I was semi-obsessed in high school.)
I guess the lack of much attention for 50 Words for Snow is due at least in part to its lack of a “single”; there’s certainly not much you’re going to leave humming. But yet, give this album a shot and it will stick with you. It’s at times haunting, at times nearly ambient, at times almost more sketches than songs, and that’s all to its benefit. Kate’s never quite made an album like this. As one who grew up with brutals winters and who never has the need to experience one again now that I live in coastal California, I nonetheless find snowy winters fascinating, now happily from afar, and this album fits snugly into that narrative for me. It evokes winter without making me experience it in person. It’s also very much, almost, anti-pop music: these are often suites, and while some things here have traditional choruses, Top of the Pops fodder this most def ain’t. Increasingly this is my favorite Kate Bush album.
(Also, I love Ryan Dombal’s review of the album for Pitchfork.)