Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Kate Bush - 50 Words for Snow (2011) REVIEW

Kate Bush is an icon and icons are meant to be destroyed. There is something about her which is similar to The Beatles or David Bowie before her, something that makes people lose any sense of criticism, like falling thoughtless into commonplaces, even if they ain't fans at all. As with the fake rebellious attitude of The Beatles, the calculated multiple impersonations and disguises of David Bowie, Kate Bush is just eccentric enough not to disturb rather conservative audiences for which the same eccentricities is a sign of accepted originality, and not conservative/easy listenable enough to please at the same time more demanding listeners. And she is only half-heartedly experimental and has continuously flirted with the charts. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, it's maybe more the somewhat built-up artist aura versus pop singer which, honestly, regularly disturbed me, it seems very much orchestrated, artificial, and there's always the risk of dissipation, the focus being a bit all over the place and not only on the music itself. David Bowie before her, and Björk after her have never succeeded to record a completely satisfying album, even though more than one of them are more than respectable, I leave you the choice. The same is to be said for Kate Bush, albums like "The Dreaming" (1982) and "Hounds of Love"(1985) are among her best but they can not, at least in my book (remember, this is just my opinion), be considered masterpieces, nor classics. Besides, she was discovered by David 'Money' Gilmour, so she can not be that fan-tastic.

Nevertheless, I've always liked Kate Bush, she offered me some wet dreams way before Madonna never could with the video of "Babooshka" in 1980, she freaked me out with her voice and the video of "Wuthering Heights" in 1978, nearly fell in love with her after watching "Running Up That Hill" and "Don't Give Up", a duet with Peter Gabriel, both in 1986. Very fine music, refreshing and original in that musically very bland mid-80s but it was her image that stroke me the most. She has something of the rather forced romantic imagery of gothic novelist Emily Brontë's work. "Wuthering Heights" was by the way inspired by the last ten minutes of the 1970 movie of the same name, barely by the book itself. Images again. Now this being said, I was particularly surprised to notice that an album like "The Dreaming" passed remarkably the test of time, so maybe I underestimate her a little bit, but it doesn't matter, it's not this spooking blog that will tarnish the icon.

What about this last delivery "50 Words for Snow"? And let's go beyond all the buzz made around the return of the recluse Kate Bush and all that crap. Well, if "Aerial" in 2005 showed some return in good shape, 12 years after the catastrophic "The Red Shoes", and despite some debatable and obsolete electronic mishmash here and there, "50 Words of Snow" shows an unexpected giant step forward... for about half of the album length. The three first songs "Snowflake", "Lake Tahoe" and "Misty" ranks among the best stuff la Bush has ever recorded. The length of each songs could appear off-putting at first, the shortest being 9:48, the longest 13:32, but it works, most of the time, and despite the neverending repetition of the main motives, musical and lyrical. It works because of the subtle variations in these repetitions, the breathing of the instruments, sometimes harmonious, then contrapuntal, turning around (mostly on "Snowflake", rendering the image of snowflakes softly falling and whirling) or meandering through a forest covered with snow ("Lake Tahoe"), and it works of course because of Kate Bush's main appeal : her voice. With time, her voice has become lower, even deeper, losing the upper register in the process (Bush's son Albert McIntosh took the higher vocal parts on "Snowflake" while two choral singers appears on "Lake Tahoe"). Kate Bush remains not only one of the best singers of her generation, she also possesses a particularly singular expressive and captivating voice. With age, that voice, while deeper and lower, also become paradoxically more fragile, almost broken like some soul singer, more human. These three songs can be listen to like some formidable triptych. On first listen, I found the mix rather muddy, but repeated revisiting made more and more details appear, just like a landscape covered with snow, first all we see is a wide thick white coat, then here a log, there another log, but maybe it's a wild animal, catch the sight.

Unfortunately, Kate Bush decided to make a completely different album from the fourth song on, the obvious single "Wild Man". This is almost Kate Bush's trademark : two albums in one record, she did it with "Hounds of Love " and "Aerial", for instance, but if it worked with the former, the result is catastrophic on "50 Words of Snow". "Wild Man" begins with a rather bad field recording which should remind us of some blizzard to enter abruptly into some half-baked funky beat, Danny Thompson's underused bumping double bass and a crap parlando delivered by Kate herself, without forgetting an easily catchy pling-plong synths shit which reminds me of the worst new wave synth pop 80s China Crisis. And wait for the horrendous refrain with real ugly distorted backing vocals sounding like Donald Duck-quacking-Disney-on-Ice sustained by Roger Water-like thick progish rock nightmare. And the thing goes on for 7 endless minutes. Kate Bush has succeeded to make it even worse with the title track and sixth song "50 Words for Snow", another slightly polyrhythmic funky thing unfolding beyond the 8 minutes mark where Kate Bush is reverse counting from 50 to 1 while actor/author Stephen Fry recites, well, the "50 Words for Snow". This is one of the most self-indulgent and boring shit I've heard in a long while. The duet with Elton John "Snowed in at Wheeler Street", if a somewhat pedestrian balladry, is on the contrary rather listenable, mostly thanks to both singers passionate performances, although Elton John worryingly sounds like some tight-ass Tony Bennett, hardly recognizable. Fortunately, and maybe rather strategically, Kate Bush saved herself from the ridicule with the last and charming song "Among Angels", with natural and bare sounding piano completed with some stylish and gripping strings for the second half. Kate Bush's voice is absolutely exquisite and touching here, and well she can still sing high registers after all. Oddly enough, or maybe not that oddly when one thinks of it, Kate Bush also sounds increasingly like Joni Mitchell all over the album. Ah, Joni Mitchell, the real near unreachable giant.

Some critics compared "50 Words for Snow" to the most adventurous albums by Talk Talk or Scott Walker, it's clear to me these guys haven't listen to the former's "Laughing Stock" (1991) or the latter "Tilt" (1995) in a long while... What can I really say here? Talk Talk and Scott Walker ain't no icons. No not even Scott Walker who remains for a larger audience that sugary crooner with a baby face and that lush deep cavernous voice on larger-than-life string arrangement.

This review is rather pitiless, there was a warning which served as an introduction and vice versa. "50 Words for Snow" is pretentious and self-indulgent for sure, but this also makes the album a rather unique effort in this dying year, and it really worths more than one visits. Despite the failures, there's something magical and haunting going on which is rather hard to grasp, just like with anything touching magic and being haunted, we keep watching, we keep listening like it's some old dark fantasy movie with here and there crappy decors and heavy-handed mise-en-scène : with some suspension of disbelief, one can be bewitched.

5.5 out of 10

  • The Kick Inside (1978)
  • Lionheart (1978)
  • Never for Ever (1980) 
  • The Dreaming (1982) - 6.5
  • Hounds of Love (1985) - 6.5
  • The Sensual World (1989) - 5
  • The Red Shoes (1993) - 4
  • Aerial (2005) - 5.5
  • Director's Cut (2011)

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