Bat For Lashes Bat For LashesThe Haunted Man
Natasha Khan's way to stardom is textbook material. She made her debut in 2006 with “Fur And Gold”, a small cult gem released by an independent label, which was somewhat overlooked at first, but then got a rerun with an extended version on major Parlophone. That's when the myth started of the slight singer who made her songs in the thousand-and-one spirits of pop: from Björk, via PJ Harvey, Siouxsie Sioux and Cat Power to Kate Bush. In 2009, already a sensation, she released “Two Suns”, the first album she recorded backed by a major, with all the perks that came with it. It was an extremely ambitious effort, on which she could fully exercise her multi-instrumental skills. It sold greatly, and she was definitely established as an artist, which is what every second album should achieve. Now, with her third full-length, “The Haunted Man”, she's expected to show maturity, as a person and as an artist. Completely naked on the sleeve, with no makeup on and only covered by the body of a man she's wearing on her shoulders like prey, Bat For Lashes is leaving the feathers and other exotic embellishments aside.
The London singer says that before going to work on this record, she suffered from writer's block, and a certain apathy. She fought against it by moving to a house near the sea, making long walks on the beach and home-cooked meals. One indication of liberation after a difficult time is the line “Thank God, I’m alive”, from the album opener, “Lilies”. Another challenge was to grow as an artist and sound more like Bat For Lashes, rather than all those references people compared her with. “Lillies” has some obvious echoes of Kate Bush and “Horses Of The Sun”, on which she collaborates with Adrian Utley (Portishead), is reminiscent of Radiohead in the electronic parts, yet with a tone closer to the PJ Harvey of “Let England Shake” (it's no coincidence Rob Ellis is featured in the credits of this record as well) and Björk. However, overall, there's no doubt that Khan has finally found her own voice.
Back to “Lilies”, the piece has all the ingredients of a typical Bat For Lashes song: a sombre, synthesiser-made base, enveloped with beautiful strings and splendid horns. The melodramatic air is maintained on “Winter Fields”, and reaches full potential on the epic “Marilyn”, on which Beck's hand in the mix is quite obvious: he makes the song grandiloquent, with a sky-high sound, yet never baroque. It's especially attractive because of the powerful lyrics, a beautiful ode to Marilyn Monroe. “Turning into a Marilyn / Leaning out of your big car” is among the best stuff Khan has written so far. What creative crisis? The synths sound like many 80s movie soundtracks in general, and like Giorgio Moroder in particular. With every spin, the record becomes more majestic, uncovering new elements, like those elated horns towards the end, or that marvellous bridge with the funny voices that sound like miniature creatures.
Khan's growth as an artist can also be felt in the combination of the songs, as they are all of a similar level. So far, what Bat For Lashes lacked was singles for mass consumption. Here, there are two. Firstly, there's “Laura”, a devastating, accomplished song. Her alliance with Justin Parker, who took care of Lana Del Rey's “Video Games”, is spot on. The modest piece hardly needs more than Natasha Khan's voice, some sparing horns and strings, and a minimalist piano to uncover its stunning beauty. Again, lines like “You’re the train that crashed my heart / You’re the glitter in the dark” are already stuck inside my head and heart. Although now, there are people comparing the track to 'the gangsta Nancy Sinatra’. The melodramatic style is similar, granted, but it's certainly not the first time the Londoner has used it. Au contraire: she should be applauded, because, probably under pressure from her label to come up with a conventional hit single, she delivers a piece that sounds very much like her and is a brilliant addition to her catalogue of powerful songs. The second single, “All Your Gold”, is irresistible, thanks to that pizzicato, with some guitars ticking like the hands of a watch. It's a sensual and dark slice of synth-pop with R&B inclinations, and quite possibly one of the stronger candidates for the title pop song of the year.
Natasha Khan's ambitiousness can be heard on tracks like “Oh Yeah”, one of the oddest and most surprising songs of them all, which makes it all the more gratifying. Here, she juxtaposes some programmed broken beats with phantasmagorical vocals, on what could be her particular version of witch-house, and the piano cascades only add to the majesty of the track. The ritual men's choir singing the song title is in sync with the vocals on “The Haunted Man”, where the voices could sound like those of soldiers marching to the battle field. That war-like feel is emphasised by the drums and triumphant horns.
Although there are some less inspired moments, such as “A Wall” - a cold and somewhat conventional synth-pop piece, possibly born from too many Depeche Mode listening sessions around the time she covered their “Strange Love” - “The Haunted Man” is quickly back on top. First with “Rest Your Head”, which comes close to dark-wave, with some sinister vocals in the vein of new Goth divas like Austra. A piece which, like “All Your Gold”, will be among the favourites of those looking to dance (a big remix is in order here, like the one Hercules And Love Affair did before). And finally, with “Deep Sea Diver”, a track that features all the qualities of a Bat For Lashes who confirms herself with this effort as the big relief, in the field of eccentric pop, of a Björk, who's already far removed from the creative peak she reached at the start of the previous decade.