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Manchester music reviews

50 Words For Snow by Kate Bush

50 Words For Snow, by Kate Bush

by Denis Joe November 2011


I love this time of year: the run-up to Christmas. Whilst some moan about lack of tradition and meaning, and whinge about the ‘consumer’ orgy, I am never less than amazed at the crowds in city centres who put themselves through so much in order to show their family and friends just how much they care. That is something to celebrate. It is a time when people show themselves as caring and unselfish individuals.


What I hate about this time of year is the omnipresence of the Christmas pop song, as if the music industry feels that it needs to force people to be happy. The exception is Fairy Tale of New York, a song consistently voted the best Christmas song of all time; it has everything a great Christmas song should have: pathos and sentimentality.


The only Christmas album that I have ever heard that I really like is Home for Christmas by the Swedish mezzo-soprano, Anne Sofie von Otter released over a decade ago, and that is partly because I don’t understand the Swedish language. So I was a bit wary of Kate Bush’s new album, (the first album of new work in five years).


It may seem rather strange to younger people today, but Kate Bush was a phenomena. Arriving on the pop scene as the cadaver of punk rock was having the last piece of meat ripped from it by the likes of Malcolm McLaren and as boys and girls in London were prettying themselves up preparing for the most vacuous youth movement ever: the New Romantics, Kate Bush was not just a beautiful looking woman, she was also bringing a unique sound to the pop music world. Wuthering Heights came across like the outpouring of an hormonally-challenged pre-pubescent. The vocal range of the singing only added to its ‘weirdness’. On Top of the Pops, she wiggled and writhed as if doing Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils. Nothing like this was ever encountered on TOTP. Kate Bush did do her own thing. In hindsight it can be said the she was the bridge between Punk and New Romance: she put into practice the stance of many punk bands (‘I don’t care’ and its variations) whilst setting the standard for facial, cosmetic, make-up that Steve Strange and the rest of the panto-dames of the time, could not match. And the rendering of a literary classic into a four-minute pop song told us that she was no air-head.


From the outset Bush, at only 19 years of age, refused to allow her record label, EMI, to put out the album track, James and the Cold Gun as a single, insisting on Wuthering Heights. As such she became the first woman to reach number one in the UK charts with a self-penned song, which was also an international hit.


She only ever did one tour in early 1979. I was lucky enough to see her in Birmingham, in an audience that seemed to be made up of love-struck lads, like myself, in the last of our teenage years. The thing was that Bush was never really seen as a sex symbol, as such; she was Scylla to our Glaucus. And this made the Not the Nine O’Clock News spoof, at the time, seem like catty bitching rather than humour. Kate Bush rightly complained that EMI promoted her as a female body. But we knew better.


Bush was to release 6 more albums, all chart successes in Britain and the US (even though she never toured the States), before a long hiatus. After Red Shoes, in 1993 it would be another 12 years before she released another album. Aerial (2005) was a critical and commercial success but that was the last album until earlier this year when Kate Bush released Director's Cut, made up of songs from her earlier albums The Sensual World and The Red Shoes which had been re-recorded and restructured. It was the first release on her own label Fish People.


Kate BushEven though 50 Words For Snow isn’t strictly a ‘Christmas’ album, it has the feel of one. The front cover conjures up the 1982 animation The Snowman. This isn’t the first time that Bush has made a foray into Christmastide. Back in 1979 she released the single December Will Be Magic Again, which, I feel, joins the never-ending parade of crappy Christmas songs. I have never been much taken with Bush as a lyricist. On paper her words range from average to absolute garbage and the ideas of the songs are generally daft. The track Misty, on this new album, in which Bush imagines building a snowman and then humping him, is a case in point. Some might say that devoting nearly a quarter-of-an-hour to it is labouring things a bit, but it is a beautiful track, as are the two opening songs, Snowflakes and Lake Tahoe. Wild Man (about the Yeti) sounds like an 80’s track, with that Kate Bush sound.


I never understood why Bush has guest singers on songs. Admittedly Stefan Roberts and Michael Wood’s choir sopranos are put to good effect against Bush’s deeper tones on Lake Tahoe, but the track Snowed in at Wheeler Street is just naff: a duet with Elton John, it comes across as lacking any conviction. Pop duets, especially love songs (think: Diana Ross And Marvin Gaye You Are Everything) should hint that “there is something going on here”, but this sound like two (very) amateur dramatists reading a script for the first time.


And if that wasn’t bad enough, the next track, the title song, features Stephan Fry. The idea was inspired by the wordplay of James Joyce. What we have is Bush pushing Fry to come up with fifty words that give an image of snow. The thing is that whilst Joyce was showing the reality of the Dublin accent and the manner in which the Irish used to play with the English language, perhaps to confound their English ‘masters’, 50 Words For Snow is just pretentious and, well ... dumb. Which is a shame because the music is classic Kate Bush.


The closing track on the album is Among Angels and this gives us Kate Bush as a brilliant singer. The song is just lovely.


And “just lovely” is really what sums up this album. You could imagine yourself with a loved one, having had the Christmas dinner and you sit down, in front of a blazing log fire, with a whiskey in one hand and the universal remote control in the other, and you play this album (preferably skipping Snowed in at Wheeler Street and the title track). Nothing could be nearer perfection.


The overall feel of 50 Words For Snow is of lounge music, maybe Diana Krall on a romantic trip. It may concern itself with winter but it has a warmth to it that really great Christmas songs have. Kate Bush’s voice still rings a wide range of tones, though it is a lot more settled than the wildness of those earlier years. This is mature Kate Bush, and though she may still be engaging in nonsense and silliness, she has grown up.


The perfect stocking filler.

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