Why Kate Bush's new album isn't as good as you've been told. Mail on Sunday, November 20 2011
50 Words For Snow
Fish People/EMI, out Nov 21
When Kate Bush was a young meteor, back in 1978, she released two albums in the same year - her first two, The Kick Inside and Lionheart. Now, at 53, a revered elder of the tribe, she is doing it again. Hot on the heels of Director's Cut, a set of remakes of her own songs released in May, comes 50 Words For Snow, a new album proper.
It starts with a track called Snowflake: a ripple of piano, restrained and classical, and a voice, low, almost talking, uttering the words 'I was born in a cloud'. It's subtle, classy, and, given that the snowflake seems to be telling its own story, a bold way to begin an album. But is it Kate Bush, exactly?
That low voice is a long, long way from the swoops and whoops of Wuthering Heights. And the other great hallmark of her early work - the rubbery sense of rhythm - is nowhere to be found.
As the track unfolds, she appears to refer to Twist & Shout, the early Beatles gem. It's about the only connection between the music Bush now favours and rock'n'roll. This is not so much the ninth album of new songs from the author of The Kick Inside, as the second from the author of Aerial.
The double album with which Bush returned in 2005 after a 12-year silence, Aerial largely consisted of sombre pIano ballads, some of them very long. Loosely organised around a subject drawn from nature, it also included a guest appearance from a cuddly TV personality. It was an easier work to admire than to enjoy.
All this is true of 50 Words For Snow, with the role of Rolf Harris going to Stephen Fry, and snow replacing birdsong as the theme. In some ways it is even harder work: the sombre piano dominates six tracks out of seven, and two of them drift on past the ten-minute mark.
One of these, Lake Tahoe, is even more classically inclined than Snowflake, with intermittent bursts of choral singing that come close to plainchant. But it's also more Kate, with an air of yearning, a lyric about ghosts, a proper vocal and an elegant drum pattern, playing in the distance, as if to say that the sense of rhythm is not quite forgotten.
Lake Tahoe comes in at 11 minutes. The next track, Misty, stretches to 13, and it drags. It is a song about falling for a snowman, but that's no reason for it to proceed like a glacier. Again, there are glimmers of brilliance - a soulful vocal, a tantalising faraway trumpet - and again they are not enough.
Suddenly, things look up, as a lush rhythm finally kicks in, and with it a satisfying hook. This is Wild Man, the first single from the album. Visceral as well as contemplative, it could have appeared on David Bowie's Station To Station.
The next two tracks ought to be just as good. One, Snowed In At Wheeler St, is a duet with Elton John, the tale of two not-quite-lovers whose shared history runs from World War 2 to 9/11. It could be a deft way of bringing some drama to the rather bland subject of snow, but it is ruined by strident music and lyrics that lurch into cliche (Kate: 'Haven't we met before?' Elton: 'We've been in love for ever!'). She would have done better to cover one of his songs, as she once did, beautifully, with Rocket Man.
Not content with having a romance with one gay celebrity, Bush then brings on another, for the title track. It's a dialogue with Stephen Fry, like a word game on Radio 4: she cajoles and counts, and he comes up with words for snow. The music, yet again, is Aerial-like, with frenetic strings, a limited bass line, and some nice dabs of guitar. It's a curiosity, not a song.
The album ends with Among Angels, another near-classical piano ballad, and, at just under seven minutes, the shortest track. In a mass-produced pop world, it's great that someone is doing this. Full marks for individuality, but only half for the actual album.