Kate Bush is of a time when pop singers didn’t need faux-lesbian makeout sessions to express nascent female sexuality, when eccentricity was not some contrived aesthetic end but a consequence of the creative process itself. For Bush, the beauty and weirdness of sex — of sensuality — was the basis of art. Her early music was shocking not for any overtly explicit content, but for its desperate attempts to celebrate sensuality in an age of technology and the vicious detachment it wrought.
In our strange and terrifying era, it’s fitting that the enigmatic songwriter has returned, now that eroticism has been decontextualized to the point of absurdity and we’ve left The Sensual World behind in favor of something more sinister and mundane. Through seven tracks stretched over an hour, 50 Words for Snow is isolated, oblique, and startlingly cold, full of snaking piano and dressed-down chamber pop with little rhythmic backbone. While Bush’s music once burst at the seams, here it glides laterally, uneasy and unsure. Like a blizzard, the songs pile nebulously onto one another until the whole thing is blanketed white. At points, it feels suffocating, like watching a snowdrift from inside a fire-lit cabin and feeling a stab of terror at its encroachment.
The analogies seem gratuitous, but much of 50 Words for Snow is in fact about snow. In opener “Snowflake,” the narrator is the snow. “I was born in a cloud,” the song begins. “Now I am falling/ I want you to catch me.” It’s a stirring bit of natal imagery made more potent by the fact that Bush’s 12-year-old son Bertie sings the part. In “Misty,” Bush details a fated tryst with — dig it — a snowman. “He lies down beside me/ So cold next to me/ I can feel him melting in my hand,” she sings desperately, mournfully.
“Snowed in at Wheeler Street,” a haunting duet with Elton John, is the story of lovers throughout history — not theirs, but ours; as the song glides from the hoary titular scene to ancient Rome to Nazi Germany and 9/11 New York, the two souls repeatedly discover and lose one another until the pain is too much to bear. “Come with me, I’ll find some rope/ I’ll tie us together,” Bush finally commands, a last-ditch effort of those whose futility even she seems deeply aware.
Few but Bush could make such blatant melodrama remotely palatable, and even she occasionally struggles to keep 50 Words for Snow from going belly-up. It often feels frustratingly directionless; the 11-minute “Lake Tahoe,” about a drowned woman and her dog, is an endurance exercise that seems out of place thematically. Like much of the record, the title track is a tenaciously literal affair wherein Bush keeps count while guest vocalist Stephen Fry rattles off frosty descriptors. But the album’s deliberate pace implies a marked growth to Bush’s creative spirit — never before has she taken such obvious and tender care with her work. She allows each song to unravel at its own speed, and in doing so, she explores every infinite contour of its being, small and potentially profound. (That the end result is often tortuous is a sort of existentialist wink given the indeterminate nature of our very being.)
Bush’s diagram finds its conceptual center on “Wild Man,” the album’s twisted, enchanting showpiece. Based on several historical accounts, the song details attempts to find and capture the mysterious and elusive Yeti in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal. Bush, the narrator, aids furtively in the creature’s escape: “We found your footprints in the snow,” she whispers. “We brushed them all away.”
Bush’s Yeti could represent herself, ever intangible and pursued by critical forces bent on picking her apart. A reading more consistent with the album is that the creature is us, or some former version thereof; what are we chasing with our incessant nostalgia but ourselves? That Bush herself is a prominent part of this cultural past for many pins a succulent layer of surrealism on the point. We must let ourselves go, she urges, let our old selves escape into the ether in order to move forward.
Somehow, we move forward. Politics aside, the Occupy protests have satisfied a deeply primal need that has suffered quite paradoxically because of our increasing interconnectedness. They are gatherings, great convergences of people coming face to face and reconnecting with one another after a debilitating period of collective isolation. (Indeed, stories of people finding one another amid the chaos call to mind the aching, ageless characters of “Snowed in at Wheeler Street.”) Of course, it’s human connection despite the odds that has been at the heart of Bush’s music from the beginning. With 50 Words for Snow, she casts the theme in a bolder and bleaker light than ever before. Still, the message is the same; Bush seeks to extract the ghost of humanity from our own elastic and untrustworthy history, our ever-troubled present. The story she uncovers is one of beautiful and irreducible inevitability: we’re snowflakes, all of us, destined to melt but meanwhile falling toward one another, unstoppably toward ourselves.