"I was born in a cloud," a voice croons over a murmuring, repeated piano figure on the first track of Kate Bush's new album. The song is called "Snowflake," and on the face of it, the lyric (sung by Bush's son, Bertie) is a meteorological point-of-view narrative. "Now I am falling/I want you to catch me." But the imagery could easily describe Bush herself. Whether she was born in a cloud, a distant nebula, or on some mystic plane beyond the reach of human technology, there has always been something otherworldly about her. And, to be honest, she can seem like a bit of a flake.
This is, after all, the woman who at age 20 baffled Saturday Night Live audiences by writhing around on Paul Shaffer's piano in a gold bodysuit, wide-eyed and singing about "The Man With the Child in His Eyes." (The clip is very much worth digging up online.) The woman who became the biggest British female star of her time by writing songs about literature ("Wuthering Heights"), monster movies ("Hammer Horror"), fetal fears of nuclear war ("Breathing"), the psychologist Wilhelm Reich ("Cloudbusting"), the eradication of aboriginal culture ("The Dreaming"), and the nature of knowledge itself ("Sat in Your Lap"). Her best-selling album, Hounds of Love, includes a side-long suite of songs called "The Ninth Wave" that draws on Celtic mythology and Arthurian legend to relate the mindstates of people swept overboard and drifting toward death.
She is not, in other words, afraid of grand gestures and possibly daffy notions. Sometimes her ideas trip her up. But more often throughout her long career, she has carried off her conceits with imagination, wit, and an unbridled lyricism that is its own kind of conviction. Even when she's joking, she means what she sings.
On her last album, the meditative 2005 double-disc Aerial, Bush narrowed her focus to the stuff of daily life: family (one song was just called "Bertie"); art (songs called "An Architect's Dream" and "The Painter's Link"); and the natural world. But even at her most domestic, she is luminous. In "Mrs. Bartolozzi," clothes in a washing machine enact a sexual shadow play, "My blouse wrapping itself around your trousers." And in the triumphal "Nocturne," she weaves a fantasia from merely wading into moonlit surf: "We stand in the Atlantic/And we become panoramic/The stars are caught in our hair."
Still, it was hard to know what to think from the early reports of the new disc, 50 Words for Snow. It is a concept album about winter, sporting one song about a Yeti ("Wild Man," the album's first and probably only single), another about a love affair with a snowman, and a duet featuring Bush and Elton John as lovers chasing each other through the centuries. And then there's the title track, on which comedian/actor Stephen Fry appears in the guise of Professor Joseph Yupik, who does indeed recite 50 words and phrases for snow—some real, some funny ("spangladasha"), some poetic ("blackbird braille").
All sort of silly, or at least potentially so, and all very Kate. And also, I'm happy to say, all pretty great. It may be true, as one British critic sniffed, that Bush no longer knows how to write pop songs. More to the point, I'd say that the 53-year-old singer no longer cares. Picking up where the expansive Aerial left off, only one of Snow's seven tracks clocks in under seven minutes, and the first three combined run well over a half-hour. But the gentle, stately songs don't feel indulgent. They use that space to unfurl their melodic ideas, which owe more to the repetitions and voicings of minimalist composers like Philip Glass than to conventional pop music.
Lyrically, Bush approaches snow and winter from directions that seem obvious at first—melt as a metaphor for transience, cold and quiet as premonitions of death. But when you think you know where she's going, she digs a little deeper. "Snowflake" envisions the world as a swirl of joy ("There's millions of snowflakes/We're dancing") and impermanence ("My fleeting song, fleeting"), underscored by the promise of connection: Responding to her son, Bush sings, "The world is so loud/Keep falling/I'll find you." "Misty" renders its tryst with a snowman in striking images ("His crooked mouth is full of dead leaves"), and the song turns out to be a lament for deep loss. It ends with the narrator, unsure if she can go on alone, standing on a ledge and ready to dive out into a blizzard.
The final track, the lilting "Among Angels," makes explicit the album's contemplation of the divine. Sounding like a Sufi poet, Bush acknowledges worldly struggle—"I might know what you mean when you say you fall apart"—but offers hope of transcendence: "There's someone who's loved you forever, but you don't know it." It is a graceful closing to an album that, for all its frosty imagery, is fundamentally warm at heart.