Of course she loves concepts — she’s even pretty good at delineating them in song suites and such. She’s even better at coaxing all manner of aural wickedness and mystery from samplers — “Waking the Witch,” “There Goes a Tenner,” and “Get Out of My House” are miracles of Fairlight programming commensurate with imaginative daring. But when she sits at the piano and sings “This Woman’s Work,” Kate Bush projects a yearning so committed that instead of recoiling from the embarrassment I marvel how she manipulates octaves and harmonic shifts.
This gift, manifest in 1978’s “The Man With The Child in His Eyes” and as recently as 2005’s “A Coral Room,” is still there in the new 50 Words For Snow. It still pokes its head out of Steve Gadd’s subtle rolls and fills; it still creates a suspense as palpable as breath on glass in the thirteen-minute long “Misty,” a saga whose literalness puts Joanna Newsom’s epics to shame. But in “Snowed in at Wheeler Street” she tries to reconcile a story with melodramatic underpinnings and austerity, and despite another luxurious Bush vocal (note the quicksilver ease with which the stress falls on the line “I’ll tie us to-GET-her”) it’s a mite ponderous. Elton John, who sounds like a man held hostage, doesn’t help. Unfamiliar yet with the album’s longeurs, I was skeptical about “Wild Man” when The Singles Jukebox reviewed it last month; it sounded too obvious a choice for single. I was right: it’s one of two tracks below eight minutes and, importantly, with a hook: a high, scraping organ line and the epicene harmonizing of Andy Fairweather Low.
Bush fans will complain that her music won’t be sullied by commonplaces like hooks, which is fair — I rustle through most pieces of music requiring a program book and my complete attention. But for listeners for whom Bush’s piano trills and subtle arrangements — like the whisper of a string arrangement on “Snowflake” — are exactly what propel her past the flotsam of modern pop, for those listeners for whom Scott Walker and Mark Hollis are touchstones, 50 Words For Snow is an exquisite package, a masterpiece of concentration bordering on the ascetic. A good dictionary lists many denotations of “batty,” most of which apply to Kate Bush; this is a woman who imitated a donkey’s bray and wrote a juicy song about music tasting like a pomegranate inside out. Perhaps Elton, Low, and her son Bertie (on “Snowflake”) brought the frisson she could no longer generate in a band format. As for me, I’d like to think Stephen Fry assumed that reciting fifty words for snow was going to be a knee-slapper.