Released 15/10/2012, on Parlophone Records
Once the heir apparent to Kate Bush, Natasha Khan, aka Bat For Lashes, has transcended her influences to become the artist she was meant to be.
The album’s cover betrays its sound: a stripped-back band and more lyrical vulnerability are signified by Khan carrying a man across her, a classic swap of gender roles, and yes- they’re both naked. This is symbolic for an album that is full of songs that sound like an exorcism of the past-former identities, relationships and the weight of history-while marking-out Khan as this story’s survivor, a tower of strength in a period of change.
The cover is a pleasingly arty contrast to Rhianna’s flaccid gyrations, harking back to when album covers were not postmodern exercises in Damien Hirstian-pretension or legs/lips/tits in a variety of formations. Even naked, Khan doesn’t trade on sexuality, but artistic integrity and uniqueness in place of vacuous celebrity and “sex-sells” logic.
A more intimate and hushed affair, you could argue that The Haunted Man has lost some of the punch of previous Bat albums. But as a trade-off, the songs seem more grounded, Khan is surer in her skin and her craft, with themes more personal, stripping away the fantastical elements of previous albums. Thanks to this, the strength of the songwriting is exposed. Gone are many of the animalistic trappings and space/time wandering tales which filled her previous two albums; this record really feels like we’ve gotten under her skin.
Khan is surer in her skin and her craft, with themes more personal, stripping away the fantastical elements of previous albums
‘Lillies’ is a strong opener, backed with a wall of heavy synths it sets the tone for the record as Khan sings of the seconds before sleep, betwixt dream and waking life; a great start to introduce this journey into a psyche that sounds both safe and tormented under the shadow of The Haunted Man.
Depending on your tastes, this album seems to take Bat on a Bjorkish veer from the mainstream centre. While the high-tripping riffs of the singles remain, the rest of the album is a considerably more hushed and introverted. There is less muscularity to the instruments, huddled back in the mix in favour of oblique blips and Bat’s voice takes centre stage. Near-confessional, these lyrics have the form of condensed poetry, as if being addressed to a single person, far beyond the fog. The joy of it is that the listener is placed in the privileged position of eavesdropping on these one-way discussions with ghosts, dead heroes or distant relationships, to peer into Khan’s heart, and once it is opened, we must bear witness to its fruits.
There also remain familiar touchstones of the Bat-style. The pseudonymous “songs about people” series continues, many of which have been some Bat’s best singles in the past ('Sarah'/'Prescilla'/'Daniel'). But a stand out track is ‘All Your Gold’ which harks back to that disco-chic venom of old, as an intense character examination plays out over sheer danceability. In contrast, ‘Laura’ is a semi-romantic paean to a star that resists the vacuity of fame and retains her independent spirit and talent, whereas ‘Marilyn’ majestically rides an ethereal wave, that sounds like a Cocteau Twins sample, in both vocal performance and chorused guitar.
Whereas previous album, Two Suns, focused on the contrast between the city and the desert as its key theme, this album suggests an infinite horizon and flux of the sea. Tired after the record/tour/record routine, Khan has said she returned to her home one the British coast, perhaps as a sense of permanence, less nomadic and more focused, and these songs deliver clearer messages about their author than before, albeit through an abstract, flowing style that makes it more unified than previous albums.
Despite peeling back the characteristic layers of dark folk and glittering dance menace, The Haunted Man, loses none of Khan’s quiet intensity. Yes, there are less guitars and turbulent background melodies, where strings once used to bite into the jugular melody of a song and veer off, they now soar alongside it, making for a lighter listen, but by no means lightweight. Like all your favourites, it is a record which works best as a whole, and reveals more the number of times you listen to it, that is to say – one of the best. So while The Haunted Man is not a lightyear leap, it is certainly a consolidation of the talent of Natasha Khan, a true original in British music, without imitator and here to stay.
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