50 Words for Snow, her second album of 2011 after Director's Cut, was released on 21 November 2011. The album consists of seven songs "set against a backdrop of falling snow" and has a running time of 65 minutes.
A radio edit of the first single "Wild Man" was played on BBC Radio 2's Ken Bruce Show on 10 October. The single, featuring both the radio edit as well as the album version, was released on 11 October. Andy Fairweather Low guest stars on this story of a group of people exploring the Himalayas who, upon finding evidence of the elusive, mythical Yeti, out of compassion cover up all traces of its footprints. Priya Elan in the New Musical Express greeted the single with enthusiasm, saying: "For those of us who have been secretly longing for a return to the unflinchingly bizarre and Bush's ability to conjure up strange new worlds, 'Wild Man' is a deep joy."
In an interview with the American radio station KCRW, Bush said that the idea for the album's title song came from thinking about the myth that Eskimos have 50 words for snow, which led her to make up increasingly fantastical words herself, such as "spangladasha", "anechoic", "blown from Polar fur", and "Robber's Veil". The album's songs are built around Bush's quietly jazzy piano and Steve Gadd's drums (she had just started working with him and praised his "brilliant drumming"), and utilize both sung and spoken word vocals in what Classic Rock's Stephen Dalton calls "a...supple and experimental affair, with a contemporary chamber pop sound grounded in crisp piano, minimal percussion and light-touch electronics...billowing jazz-rock soundscapes, interwoven with fragmentary narratives delivered in a range of voices from shrill to Laurie Anderson-style cooing." Bassist Danny Thompson also appears on the album.
On the first track, "Snowflake", in a song written specifically to use his still high choir-boy voice, Bush's son Albert sings the role of a falling snowflake in a song expressing the hope of a noisy world soon being hushed by snowfall. "Snowflake" drifts into "Lake Tahoe", where choral singers Stefan Roberts and Michael Wood join Bush in a song about a rarely seen ghost: a woman who appears in a Victorian gown to call to her dog, Snowflake. Bush explained to fellow musician Jamie Cullum in an interview on Dutch Radio that she wished to explore using high male voices in contrast to her own, deeper, voice. "Misty" is about a snowman lover who melts away after a night of passion, and after "Wild Man", Elton John and Bush as eternally divided lovers trade vocals on "Snowed In at Wheeler Street", while actor Stephen Fry recites the "50 Words for Snow". The quiet love song "Among Angels" finishes the album.
Two stop-motion animation videos were released online to promote the album, one to accompany a section of "Misty" (called "Mistraldespair"), the other to accompany a section of "Wild Man". "Mistraldespair" was directed by Bush and animated by Tommy Thompson and Gary Pureton, while the "Wild Man" segment was created by Finn and Patrick at Brandt Animation. On 24 January 2012, a third piece called "Eider Falls at Lake Tahoe", was premiered on her website and on YouTube. Running at 5:01, the piece is a black-and-white shadow puppet animation that NPR's Dan Raby calls "...beautiful in its simplicity — emphasizing small subtle movements over big extravagance... The stark contrast between the black figures and the white world makes each set piece seem mystical." Directed by Bush and photographed by award-winning British cinematographer Roger Pratt, the shadow puppets were designed by Robert Allsopp.
The album's closing track, "Among Angels", was included in the setlist of Bush's 2014 Before the Dawn concerts. In 2015, a remixed version of "Wild Man" was included on the The Art of Peace − Songs for Tibet II compilation album celebrating the 80th birthday of the Dalai Lama.
50 Words For Snow received general acclaim from music critics. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalised rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the album received an average score of 85, based on 35 reviews, which indicates "universal acclaim". On 27 November, 50 Words for Snow entered the UK album charts at #5, making Bush the first female recording artist to have an album of all new material in the top five during each of the last five decades.
On 14 November 2011, NPR played the album in its entirety for the first time. In her accompanying review of the album, NPR music critic Ann Powers writes: "Each song on Snow grows as if from magic beans from the lush ground of the singer-songwriter's keyboard parts. The music is immersive but spacious, jazz-tinged and lushly electronic – the 53-year-old Bush, a prime inspiration for tech-savvy young auteurs ranging from St. Vincent to hip-hop's Big Boi, pioneered the use of digital samplers in the 1980s and is still an avid aural manipulator. This time around, drummer Steve Gadd is her most important interlocutor – the veteran studio player's gentle but firm touch draws the frame around each of her expanding landscapes. But Bush won't be restricted. Like [Joni] Mitchell on Don Juan's Restless Daughter [sic], she takes her time and lets her characters lead." Powers chose 50 words for the new album, describing it as "Powdery fantasia. Contemplative. Winter matins. Playful. Opium reverie. Grounded. Ghost story. Sensual. Artistic recalibration. Unhurried. Drummer's holiday. Quiet. Ode to the white keys. Imaginative. Exploration of the lower register. Floating. Mother-son duet. Solitary. Snowed-in erotica. Collaborative. Joni Mitchell answer record. Inimitable. Supernatural space odyssey. What we'd expect from Kate Bush." The Guardian's Alexis Petridis notes that "For all the subtle beauty of the orchestrations, there's an organic, live feel, the sense of musicians huddled together in a room, not something that's happened on a Bush album before."
Will Hermes in Rolling Stone writes: "[50 Words for Snow is] an LP that finds a universe of emotions in its wintery theme – a sort of virtual snowglobe ... the music ... is full of plush, drifty ambience. The vocals sound nothing like the fierce cyberbabe on her 1982 LP The Dreaming, or the strange angels on Hounds of Love, but they are no less sublime ... she sounds utterly at home defining her own world. It's an amazing place." Everything Entertainment Central's Tim David Harvey says: "The album begins with the beautiful fall of a song called 'Snowflake', before getting operatic, strange and even more sublime with 'Lake Tahoe' which is as deep and decedent as the place itself, it's that kind of picturesque music," and goes on to call the album "unique, concise, cohesive classic."
The Quietus' Joe Kennedy compares 50 Words for Snow to the work of such artists as Michael Nyman, Brian Eno and Scott Walker, writing "Snow brings about a state of exception in which there's no pressure to exert ourselves on the outside world: instead, it invites contemplativeness and the prioritisation of personal and domestic relationships over professional ones. Bush's habitual provocations to abandon day-to-day concerns while cultivating romantic, internal landscapes have always felt slightly like the work of someone gazing from a window into a blizzard. This, one senses, is her natural territory...Where her past work has often been heavily-layered and breathless, 50 Words for Snow uses negative space to impressive effect; much of the album features little more than voice and flurrying passages of piano which gust across the stave, changing pace and melodic direction as if they're suddenly hitting updrafts." Other critics take exception to some of Bush's choices, greeting the album with skepticism. Ludovic Hunter-Tilsley in The Financial Times warns that despite "slow eddies of piano chords and gentle percussion … wintry piano, atmospheric orchestral arrangements and an intimate, torch-lit vocal from Bush, who, at 53, has acquired a warm huskiness to her voice … the album wobbles with the hammy Elton John duet "Snowed In at Wheeler St", and topples over on the title track in which Bush invites Stephen Fry to dream up 50 terms for snow … 50 Words for Snow elucidates its wintry theme with flashes of brilliance but the odd treacherous icy patch too"; Vivascene's Marin Nelson has trouble with the songs' long running times and Bush's "forced whimsicality"; she declares that "Bush was going for snowy surrealism, but we’re left feeling cold."
Australia's ABC Radio National declared 50 Words for Snow album of the week of 12 November 2011, calling the album "quiet, lush and otherworldly." Mojo placed the album at number 5 on its list of "Top 50 albums of 2011" while Stereogum placed the album at number 11, Pitchfork placed the album at number 36 and Uncut placed it at number 40 on their lists.
The album debuted, and peaked, at number 5 in the Official Charts Company UK Albums Chart with sales of 49,812 copies, before dropping to number 26 the following week with a 63% reduction in sales; the album appeared in the top 100 section of the chart for nine weeks, and despite being released in the eleventh month of 2011 was the eighth best-selling vinyl album of the year. It also peaked at number 83 on the Billboard 200 in the United States, but charted in several subsections of the chart, notably reaching number 7 in the Top Independent Albums chart.
Bush was nominated for 2012 BRIT Awards as Best British Female Solo Artist, but eventually lost to Adele. She also made her first official public appearance after 10 years, picking the South Bank Sky Arts Award in the Pop category for 50 Words for Snow, beating fellow nominees Adele, for 21 and PJ Harvey, for Let England Shake. The same three albums were nominated for the Best Album award at the 2012 Ivor Novello Awards, won by PJ Harvey.
All tracks written by Kate Bush.
Performance CreditsAlbert McIntosh – lead vocals (1)
Andy Fairweather Low – featured vocals (4)
Dan McIntosh – guitar (1, 3, 4, 5, 6)
Danny Thompson – bass (3)
Del Palmer – bass (1), bells (4)
Elton John – featured vocal (5)
John Giblin – bass (4, 5, 6)
Kate Bush – chorus vocals (1), bass (1), piano (1, 2, 3, 5, 7), vocals (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), backing vocals (4), keyboards (4, 5, 6)
Michael Wood – featured vocals (2)
Stefan Roberts – featured vocals (2)
Stephen Fry (as Prof. Joseph Yupik) – featured vocals (6)
Steve Gadd – drums (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)
Written and produced by Kate Bush
Published by Noble & Brite Ltd.
Recorded by Del Palmer
Additional recording by Stephen W. Tayler
Mixed by Stephen W. Tayler
Assisted by Stanley Gabriel
Many thanks to Del Palmer for his input
Additional assistants: Jim Jones, Robert Houston, Patrick Phillips and Kris Burton
Mastered by Doug Sax and James Guthrie
Assisted by Eric Boulanger
Orchestral arrangements by Jonathan Tunick
Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Tunick
Orchestra sessions recorded at Abbey Road Studios
Recorded by Simon Rhodes
Assisted by Chris Bolster and John Barrett