by RAJ DAYAL
When Natasha Khan, better known as Bat for Lashes, stepped out with her first album, Fur and Gold, people officially took notice. She was dubbed eccentric, artsy—spooky even. But the one thing that couldn’t be denied was her almost unfair abundance of talent and creative verve.
On Bat for Lashes’ second album, Two Moons, what was once seen as potential, now became confirmation of a singular talent. The dark undercurrent to the psychedelic folk mired in mysticism was disarmingly infectious and succeeded in pushing Khan to the front of the line. With the album’s lead single, “Daniel,” resonating deeply with so many listeners, critics included, the album was universally hailed as a near masterpiece.
After three years, Bat for Lashes returns with The Haunted Man––a stark, inventive and sublime work from a maturing artist who finally seems to have caught up to her considerable gifts.
Initially what jumps out on the new album is the stellar technical production—the choice of arrangements and presentation come together to form a gorgeous soundscape. Whatever preconceived notions people may have about Khan’s music, it’s hard to deny that from a technical standpoint, this album just flat-out sounds great. The payoff though, is much more than in the technical specifications or choices made by producers. The real weight of these songs comes from a newly evolved lyricism and Khan’s nuanced delivery. An assured vocalist, Khan never travels too far outside her range and maintains precise control of her instrument.
The album opener “Lilies,” is a ballad with an electronic-laden foundation. She builds each verse leading to the melancholic chorus describing the titular lilies. This song sets the stage for the prevailing concept of the album—it’s somber but somehow is always on the edge of hope. When Khan raises her voice slightly and proudly exclaims, “Thank God I’m Alive!/Thank God I’m Alive,” before the final chorus, it breaks through the wall of moody atmospherics to triumphantly declare her emotive state. It’s almost an admission of sorts and functions as a marker for the artist that she’s become.
These set of songs still contain Bat for Lashes’ unique trademark flourishes. On The Haunted Man’s enigmatic title track, Khan enlisted a choir of marching band soldiers literally singing three-part harmonies. This peculiar juxtaposition with the electronic blips and bloops, the strings and synths, along with Khan’s cascading vocals telling her lovelorn ghost story is the aural equivalent of falling over a cliff. As these songs build momentum it’s clear that Khan is determined to shed memories that harm and hold on to the ones that define her—if only by a string.
The standout on the album is “Laura.” Khan’s piano ballad serves both as a loving message and hard-won lamentation. In recent interviews Khan talks about how the track grounded in reality, is based on a friend. The song begins with the soft touch of encouragement for a friend who doesn’t know what to do now that the party is over and the lights are off. Khan gently consoles, “You say that they’ve all left you behind/ Your heart broke when the party died.” Its obvious that Khan is not telling the story of a single party but rather the somber tale of not being able to let go or transcend the past. The arrangement of the song is chillingly sparse and Khan’s heartbroken consolation is sobering. She assures, “You’re the train that crashed my heart/ You’re the glitter in the dark/ Oh, Laura/ You’re more than a superstar/ And in this horror show/ I’ve got to tell you so/ Oh, Laura/ You’re more than a superstar.”
The majority of the songs on the album are about relationships: letting go, accepting and not being ready. When these songs make their way through the thin shimmering gauze of Bat for Lashes they end up sounding mostly like ghost stories. This is the key to the album’s success. And while the prestige seems to be that Khan’s songs are heightened with drama and wrought with fear because of her reliance on the dark stories of her earlier albums, it’s not a sleight-of-hand magic trick. It seems Khan has finally figured out how to make sense of her version of the world.
While it’s hard to tell if Khan’s gentle coo heard throughout is meant to seduce or frighten away, one thing is certain: The Haunted Man is another near masterpiece. [A-]
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