After the immense disappointment that was “Director’s Cut”, it was with some trepidation that I approached Kate’s latest album. Two albums in one year though? Considering this is a woman who had previously taken two DECADES to release two albums, it was a bit of a surprise. Let’s just brush the former album under the rug, and concentrate on this winter offering.
NOT a Christmas album, naturally. In fact I’m not entirely sure if she even knows Christmas is happening, this album is an affirmation that she’s imaginatively gifted, or just mental.
10 Snowflake – I was boooooooorrrnnn. Her voice really goes for the whole range doesn’t it? Oh I’ve just read her son does some of it, never mind. A gorgeous piano-led piece that picks up where the beautiful “Aerial” left off. There’s something desperately sad about it, I don’t think it was necessarily intended that way. She’s singing from the point of view of a snowflake making its way from a cloud to find some loved one. I don’t feel like it’s just about that, it’s like she’s been reincarnated or something and seeking out her love. Or something, maybe she’s addled my brain. It’s very simple but totally gorgeous. The high notes are really striking in the middle of this bleak track too, that one at 5:50 is really eye-popping. Her tone of voice is just so sad, I listen to this almost a bit teary. PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER. This is how it’s done though, 10 minutes and I’m just sitting here rapt. But bear in mind this is a woman who totally struck me down with a song about a washing machine.
07 Lake Tahoe – 11 minutes long now… let’s just call this a concept album and not worry too much. Not sure what this is about, a lady in the lake? This doesn’t have quite the atmosphere and emotion of Snowflake, but it shares the minimal piano accompaniment. Is she shouting “Snoooowflaaake”? Sounds like she’s lost her dog or something (I swear on my grave that I didn’t read that on Wiki, I’ve just spotted it!). The choral duet is a bit morose, sounds like I wasn’t far off with the subject matter, a bit of a ghost story. Hasn’t got much to cling onto though, sadly.
08 Misty – Well this is probably the infamous track now, dealing with adult themes that I never knew about, namely sex with snowmen. I’m sure lots of people have done it (!?). It starts off straightforward enough, a seductively sung bit about building “Misty”. I guess she’s not wearing gloves because she soon succumbs to injury, and some blood magic evidently brings the snowman to life. Then she has sex with it! Well of course, wouldn’t you? There’s more to the song than Lake Tahoe, though she certainly likes to leave the musical piece a chance to breathe and let us process the bizarre mental images. She’s had these fantasy tracks before – can you remember her dancing with Hitler? – and while it’s easy to snigger (and I will), it’s oddly affecting when the inevitable happens and he melts without even CALLING HER BACK, what a bastard. Actually I’m not entirely sure if he’s alive at all! Either way, she describes it all in such vivid detail, it’s difficult not to get sucked into it. The backing is a bit more lively, and climaxes with her tearful wailings for her frosty conquest. At 13:30 long, it’s a bit of an epic, and while it does drag in places, particular in the second half, but the last 3 or 4 minutes and the “Mistyyyyyy” bit really are worth the wait. Just use protection next time, Kate. Like a scarf.
07 Wild Man – Well as close to a single as we’re likely to get. A more instant-sounding track now, an ode to a yeti (of course!) or something like that. To be honest I haven’t warmed to this much. The twangy instruments and overall feel are a bit reminiscent of older material, perhaps even back as far as 1980’s “Never for ever”. The chorus is memorable but a bit annoying really, I think there are just too many shoehorned-in long words. I do quite enjoy the description of this creature creating a ruckus, pulling up rhodedendrons, stuff like that. Parts of it drag me in, but that chorus just gets on my nerves a bit.
09 Snowed in a Wheeler Street – That electronic shimmery effect running throughout is so sinister and captivating. This story really has me from the word go. Kate’s approaches a man in a bar (who turns out to be Elton John), and they realise they’ve been lovers in several past lives (maybe I’m taking it too literally). Sounds corny on paper, but the unsettling tone of the music and the story of them meeting at these variously terrible moments in history really keeps my interest. I like both their vocals, especially not as a particular fan of Elton. There’s a desparation to the song that never really lets you get comfortable, accompanied by sudden outbursts of dramatic chorus. Elton really gives the pipes an airing doesn’t he?
10 50 Words for snow – Now this is a concept that could really divide. Voice of random knowledge Stephen Fry reading out the billed 50 words for snow, while being egged on by Kate over the top of a vaguely latin-American beat, with simmering electronics underneath. I was disappointed to hear that some of these are just made up, I’m sure they could have found plenty of good ones. Thankfully the good ones are ones I know are real. I wonder how many are fake, I fear for “Phlegm de neige”. As a concept it just really works for me, that insistent beat fits wonderfully. Fry has a great speaking voice, and doesn’t come across as too much of a smuggo, apart from his barely concealed contempt for the American terms like potentially-made-up “ERASE-O-DUST”. Some of them just sound so GOOD though, especially the Russian-sounding ones. A neat twist on what I imagine most speculated (me included) that it would be about the commonly-quoted idea that eskimos have fifty words for snow (but none for love because we are so much more civilised etc etc).
06 Among Angels – A bit of a damp squib to go out on, a relatively basic piano-led song, but with little of the atmosphere of the opening tracks. To be honest, singing about angels is a bit cliche, and while it’s all very pretty, it’s just a bit blah. This album succeeds when it leaves some of the empty space to do the work, rather than keep attention over 15 minutes of instrumentation. It’s a nice song, there’s nothing objectionable about it musically, but it just doesn’t go anyhwere in the 6+ minutes allocated. In an album with clearly defined pieces on a variety of subjects, this seems like a relatively uninteresting note to go out on, and struggles to justify its extended runtime as the others do (though at 6:49, it’s a good minute shorter than any other track).
So there we have it. I had my reservations about a post-Aerial world, as that seemed like such a great note to go out on. Not just quality-wise, but it felt like a nice place to end, with images of Kate just being loopy in the comfort of her remote mansion, happily laughing away with the wildlife.
But in some ways this is the other side to the same coin as Aerial – mostly piano-led, well defined soundscapes that keep things simple but still offer so much for the listener to think about. OK it misses as much as it hits, but not many artists can get away with an album whose tracks average just short of 10 minutes, and still get a top 5 album in the bustle of the Christmas release schedule. I would be overjoyed to hear more from her, though part of me would be equally happy for this to be a swansong, to preserve what I love about her.
Keepers for the iPod: Snowflake, Snowed in at Wheeler Street, 50 words for snow