Just in time for the arrival of winter cold, Kate Bush's 50 Words for Snow settles in like a dense, icy fog, delivered in a slow, deliberate style that's far different from the singer's usual doe-eyed dynamism. Following up on the more leisurely take on old material that characterized Director's Cut, the album applies Bush's usual lyrical palette, purple tales of romance characterized by expressive fantasy elements, to long, glacially progressing tracks.
This means that, despite Bush's long-term reputation as a purveyor of singularly odd pop songs, the material here isn't as catchy as it is catatonic. Yet her measured new style works well, reaching an apogee on tracks like "Misty," which runs to an unbelievable 13-and-a-half minutes on little more than words and piano. It's mesmerizing enough that it's easy not to notice the bizarre lyrical focus, which boils down to an erotic interpretation of "Frosty the Snowman."
At other times the wide-open spaces make it all to evident how silly the material is. Bush's songs have always had an element of the ridiculous, something that was lost in, or easily forgiven by, how dynamically propulsive and weird they were, full of vocal acrobatics and bizarre effects. With those things stripped away, songs like "Snowed in at Wheeler Street," a blustery duet with Elton John chronicling a doomed love affair spanning hundreds of years, only point out how much Bush and Anne Rice have in common.
Nothing else here is nearly as bad, despite a litany of odd choices: on "Lake Tahoe" another 10-minute-plus mammoth, Bush pairs up with choral singer Stefan Roberts; on "Snowflake," her son sings from the snowflake's point of view; and Stephen Fry shows up on "50 Words for Snow" to recite the titular words as Bush croons over him. As absurd as it sounds, all of this is somehow perfect and eerily charming. 50 Words for Snow is a success not only because it's so challengingly bold and peculiar, but because it repackages Bush's usual idiosyncrasies in an entirely new form. It succeeds as a transitional work, but first and foremost as its own singular world—a hushed, magnificent snow globe full of strange stories and characters.