Fact: Relationships are challenging. Particularly when one of you is made of snow.
Before Florence Welch and Tori Amos, before Bjork and Madonna, there was Kate Bush.
Not that this is a contest.
But Bush, a 2002 Ivor Novello Award recipient who has landed an album on the United Kingdom’s “Top 5” charts in each of the last five decades, did help to open the door on a type of uniquely-feminine music; one capable of birthing dream-like, dance-filled parallel worlds in tandem with its songs.
For me, that was the gift of Bush’s earliest albums and videos (and yes, they were albums, then). Each song was its own melodic, full-blown story: “Experiment IV” described a military lab’s disastrous search for “a sound that could kill someone from a distance,” while “Cloudbusting” (and its accompanying Terry-Gilliam-conceived video) detailed the arrest of a scientist who has successfully created a machine to control the weather. Meanwhile, the bagpipes-and-bouzouki-tinged “Night of the Swallow” and peripatetic “There Goes a Tenner” both revolved, it seemed, around the getaway plans for heists. This was a lush, morally-muddled, dystopic palette Bush worked from–and as a morally-muddled, dystopic young woman, myself, I remember becoming hooked immediately.
Equally appealing for me was the fact that Bush’s songs were often populated by women on epic emotional quests: for gothic, idealized love in “Wuthering Heights,” for self-revelation in “Under Ice” (“There’s something moving under/Under the ice/Trying to get out of the cold water/It’s me”), for deeper connections with lovers in “Babooshka” and “Under the Ivy.” That search for identity, as well as the uncanny ability to don and discard personas, resonated with me tremendously in my late teens and early twenties, for obvious reasons…
Fact: The creators of the Alien costume designed the cloudbusting machine in this video.
Back in the early-to-mid-80’s when I first fell in love with her, Bush was relatively unknown in America–despite tremendous success in her home, England. At that point, she was best recognized for her duet with Peter Gabriel, “Don’t Give Up,” and for her biggest U.S. hit, “Running Up that Hill (A Deal with God).” Later, perhaps, alert listeners remarked on her elegiac “This Woman’s Work” in the otherwise-frothy Kevin Bacon/Elizabeth McGovern movie She’s Having a Baby. But mostly, she was not noticed here, either on radio or MTV.
Worse than invisibility, though, were the haters. Bush’s rarefied style has never been to everyone’s tastes. Back when we were dating, my husband’s initial reaction to her was certainly less-than-receptive: on hearing “Wuthering Heights” for the first time, he scowled, then sputtered, “Oh, that needs to stop!” My mom’s reaction was even more withering: “Turn that cr*p off. No wonder you have nightmares all of the time!”
But I stood by Kate–even though my friends and family stated repeatedly that they could never accept her in their homes. By the late 80’s, this was becoming less of an issue, as Bush’s albums were beginning to arrive further and further apart. 1989 saw the release of The Sensual World and in 1993 she came out with her “biggest” album to date, The Red Shoes. From a commercial standpoint, these albums were some of her most successful work, though I didn’t find myself enmeshed in them in quite the same way her earlier work had captured my imagination. They seemed…less special, more overtly fey. Perhaps it was time to put away childish things and acknowledge that Kate and I were growing apart.
Before I could do that, though, she disappeared.
Fact: Kate seems so happy and engaged here. But then she disappears.
From 1993 to 2005, Bush seemed to drop entirely off the radar. She married, had a son, Bertie, and committed herself (it seemed) entirely to marriage, motherhood and the unique brand of normality that can only come from owning dual English mansions in West Berkshire and East Portlemouth. In 2005 she surfaced briefly, releasing a golden, summery double-CD: Aerial. In 2007, she piped up again with the song “Lyra,” possibly the most noteworthy element of the otherwise-execrable The Golden Compass film–certainly the only moment worthy of association with the His Dark Materials trilogy. In early 2011, she released Director’s Cut, a reworking of much of the material on The Red Shoes and The Sensual World, with a completely re-recorded version of “This Woman’s Work.”
And now, in late 2011, Bush has released 50 Words for Snow, a stark, wintry-beautiful reply to fair-haired Aerial, populated with ribbons of repeating piano, swirling swathes of silence, and more of her signature relational roadbumps.
The CD opens with a duet between Bush and her 13-year-old son, Bertie: two snowflakes falling to earth, reeling at the beauty of Christmas at midnight, calling to each other, “The world is so loud/Keep falling. I’ll find you.” In a subsequent duet, “Snowed in at Wheeler Street,” (this time with Elton John), two lovers miss each other repeatedly as they travel asynchronously back and forth through time, repeating “I don’t want to lose you again.” Finally, in “Misty,” a song that turns Raymond Briggs’ wordless children’s masterpiece on its snowy head, Bush’s snowman doesn’t simply come to life and enter her home, he enters her bed, kissing her with his “ice-cream lips” before melting next to her, leaving behind only “dead leaves, bits of twisted branches and frozen garden.”
In between these jewels other equally-stark gems are nestled: a ghost searches for her pet, Snowflake, in “Lake Tahoe.” An observer tries to hide evidence of the Yeti’s existence in “Wild Man,” and Stephen Fry quietly reads through the title track’s “50 Words for Snow” while Bush cheers him on at each chorus. The CD ends with the most gorgeous of all the tracks, “Among Angels.”
If you need, just call.
Rest your weary world in their hands.
Lay your broken laugh at their feet.
I can see angels around you.
They shimmer like mirrors in Summer.
There’s someone who’s loved you forever but you don’t know it.
You might feel it and just not show it.
There are only seven songs on 50 Words for Snow–each one clocking in at between 6 and 14 minutes. At first glance, hardly enough music to wrap my arms around after such a long separation from this friend it turns out I’ve missed terribly. And yet, it is enough. Perfect. I am so glad that she is back.
My suggestion is: use those recently-bequeathed iTunes gift cards you’ve received, tucked into stockings and envelopes, to buy yourself this companion for the cold months that are coming. And hope that it is not 5, 10, 13 years before the next Kate Bush release.
Disclosure: I received a copy of 50 Words for Snow for review purposes. If I hadn’t, I would most-certainly have bought it, anyway.