Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Kate Bush's 50 Words for Snow on LP
First the bad news: my LP copy of the new Kate Bush album, 50 Words for Snow, is one of the worst pressings I've purchased since I stopped buying used records on eBay. The surface noise levels are appalling, the records themselves are warped, and on the first disc the needle keeps going past the dead wax and swiftly across the label until my tonearm crashes into the spindle. In what third world country was this pressed? Even after a thorough and meticulous cleaning on the Walker Prelude LP Cleaning System, it was still borderline unlistenable. What a waste of $25.
Fortunately the folks at Anti, the record label, saw fit to include the entire CD in the package. So--and it pains a vinyl anachronist like me to say this--I actually felt happy when I switched to the digital rendering of this challenging release and gave Kate's latest effort a second chance. While at first I was ready to give 50 Words a pass from a critical standpoint, I begrudgingly let it sink it and now I'm enthralled by it. It's not for the faint-hearted...this 2-LP/CD release has only seven songs in its 65-minute playing time, so Kate is definitely in an epic mode. But after repeated listenings, the excess turns to a sublime maturity that is based on this hyper-intelligent artist's willingness to let songs develop and fulfill their divine purpose.
Sometimes I have to question my love for Kate. For me, the enthusiasm is contained to both sides of The Dreaming, the first side of Hounds of Love and the first two songs of her last fully original studio effort, 2005's Aerial. (I haven't yet heard The Director's Cut, the set of remixes she released earlier this year, because they were culled from two earlier albums I didn't really like.) On many of her releases, Kate switches from more conventional song arrangements and structures (well, conventional for her) to Kate-singing-while-playing-piano-and-little-more, and the first two sides of the new album start with nearly 35 minutes--almost an entire album for most performers--of that rambling, reflective and overly-mellow type of music. While listening to this LP for the first time, I didn't start paying attention to its craft until the Bowie-esque "Wild Man" kicks in with its turgid, fevered chorus (which features backing vocals by Andy Fairweather Low).
Once I popped in the CD, however, the more silent passages were fleshed out, and suddenly I was put under Kate's spell. I said Kate was hyper-intelligent, and this often means that she leaves more casual listeners in the gully when it comes to fully connecting with her somewhat lofty ambitions. But Kate is also passionate, romantic and supremely artful when you're paying close attention. The quiet opener, "Snowflake," features her son Albert as a snowflake who wants to ensure that he is discovered once he hits the ground. His classic choirboy soprano, which may remind you of the dishwasher in the film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, is a profound and somber counterpoint to Kate's lovely insistence in the chorus that "the world is so loud/keep falling/I'll find you."
"Misty," the longest track on the album at thirteen-and-a-half minutes, concerns a woman who has a passionate tryst with a snowman only to discover he has melted the next day--silly yet heady stuff. The aforementioned "Wild Man" is about the discovery of a yeti's footprints in the snow by an expedition, followed by Kate's assurances that "you're not an animal," and that his cry is a signal to her that "you sound lonely." Her duet with Elton John, "Snowed in at Wheeler Street," is remarkable in that his voice is more gently and husky with age and almost unrecognizable at first; it's unremarkable in that this is the most conventional song on the album and its lyrics are no more poetic than the average ballad sung by almost any two famous pop stars.
For me, the stand-out track is the title track which consists of Kate counting off the numbers one through fifty while Professor Joseph Yupik (voiced by British actor Stephen Fry) comes up with increasingly goofy words to describe snow such as anklebreaker, shnamistoflopp'n and the Klingon phrase peDtaH 'ej chIS qo. Propelled by Stev Gadd's exquisite turn on the drums, this song combines a trance-like momentum with Kate's shrieking pleas to the professor: "Come on Joe, you've got 32 to go/Don't you know it's not just the Eskimo." It's sounds light-hearted in print, but it's an intensive, almost addictive track. I keep playing this eight-and-a-half minute fever dream over and over.
All in all I wished I had saved a few bucks and just bought the CD, which is a real let-down for me considering my love for the analog formats. I've also wandered onto a few music forums where others have lamented the sad state of the vinyl, so it's not just my copy. But pushing that disappointment aside, I have to say that Kate is still as vital of an artist as ever, and I'm enjoying the second wind of her unique performing career. If you're a fan, this is a must-have; if you're not, you might still be surprised at the nerve it took to make this uncommon and sometimes difficult LP in an age where musical genius and a love for the obscure can be perceived as a character flaw.