Lee Williscroft-Ferris reviews the latest album from Natasha Khan, aka Bat for Lashes, called ‘The Haunted Man’.
Natasha Khan, aka Bat for Lashes, purveyor of avant garde alternative pop since 2006, is back with a new hairstyle and, more importantly, her third album, The Haunted Man. Looking worryingly like Lily Allen with her recently-acquired geometric bob, has Khan built upon the success of her 2009 top 5 album, Two Suns, with her new material?
Bat for Lashes has, in our opinion, always been criminally underrated. She has, for example, only had one top 40 single. Recent single ‘All Your Gold’ – an absolute stonker of a track – failed to chart and lead single from The Haunted Man, ‘Laura’, only reached number 144. Perhaps she is destined to forever be one of those artists who bask in the glow of fervent critical acclaim, while platinum-selling commercial success remains elusive. Let’s face it, most of the best artists ‘suffer’ the same fate.
The Haunted Man, as the name suggests, is a largely ethereal affair; a collection of slightly eccentric compositions underpinned by Khan’s distinctive vocal style, which fluctuates somewhere between Marina and the Diamonds and Annie Lennox. Opening track, ‘Lilies’, is a dark, rumbling affair with folk undertones, as the 32-year-old sings about ‘all of the lilies on the hill’. Then comes the aforementioned single, ‘All Your Gold’, in its full album version glory. Undoubtedly one of the most radio-friendly songs on the album, Khan sings about a former lover who has drained her of her capacity to love, confessing her feelings to her much maligned new beau; ‘You’re a good man / I keep telling myself to just let go / There was someone that I knew before / I let him take all my gold and hurt me so bad / Now for you, I have nothing left of all my gold’. It’s not particularly subtle, but the frank lyrics, combined with a irresistible hook and an addictive beat, make it a veritable highlight.
‘Horses Of The Sun’ features an aptly galloping beat and a higher vocal register, which lend themselves perfectly to the simple song structure. Interestingly, there is only one verse and chorus, both performed twice, again suggesting a folk influence. Further underlining this is the almost chant-like delivery of the chorus. It’s a great track and ideally placed on the album. Next up is ‘Oh Yeah’, an adequate track with a shimmering synth, but not much else to set it apart from the sparkling assortment which characterises the first two thirds of The Haunted Man.
Lead single, ‘Laura’, is an ode to dashed hopes and unfulfilled dreams – ‘You say that they’ve all left you behind / Your heart broke when the party died / Drape your arms around me and softly say / Can we dance upon the tables again?’. The completely stripped-back instrumentation is at odds with much of the album, but doesn’t feel misplaced. Instead, it enables Khan’s exquisite vocal nuances to truly shine, making for a genuinely emotive moment. Track 6, ‘Winter Fields’, sees Khan come from leftfield again with a track seemingly targeted at the Christmas music market; ‘Hurtling through heavy snow / Our hands are cold and the moon sets low’, she sings gleefully over a festive rhythm. Notably similar to Kate Bush’s 2011 album, 50 Words For Snow, in terms of overall sentiment, it’s an incredibly sweet, if somewhat random inclusion. We challenge you not to smile when you hear it.
The opening ripple of title track ‘The Haunted Man’ is reminiscent of Vespertine-era Björk and is similarly fantastical with its mysterious lyrical content. Almost two minutes in, a male voice (presumably that of ‘The Haunted Man’) appears with a barely decipherable chant, which lasts a whole minute before Khan reclaims the reins. Her higher register once again dominates, the song rising to a string-laden crescendo before mellowing into a 60-second cool-down. Any remaining energy may be sapped by ‘Marilyn’, an outstanding, archetypal Bat for Lashes number, with a thudding asymmetric beat accompanying clapping, slightly 80s-style synths and suitably eccentric lyrics – ‘Holding you, I’m touching a star / Turn it into Marilyn, leaning out of a big car’. From twinkly winter to dead Hollywood legends in eight minutes. What’s not to love?
Unfortunately though, ‘Marilyn’ is where the really great stuff runs dry. Don’t get us wrong – eight wonderfully constructed, expertly performed tracks of above-average length, mean that we are prepared to forgive the meandering finale to the album. Just. ‘A Wall’, ‘Rest Your Head’ and ‘Deep Sea Diver’ are by no means poor. In fact, the instrumentation is excellent, if somewhat pedestrian in scope compared to the majesty of ‘All Your Gold’ and ‘Marilyn’, for example. There is a short-lived moment of hope as the beat kicks in on ‘Rest Your Head’, but ultimately, all three final tracks fail to pack the kind of killer punch you yearn for, which would make the album a consistent entity. The stark, over-simplicity of the ‘You see a wall / I see a door’ concept of ‘A Wall’ feels ill-at-ease. Furthermore, ‘Deep Sea Diver’ fades so inconspicuously into the wallpaper that, when it brings The Haunted Man to a close, it may well take you a few minutes to realise.
The ‘out there’ melange of styles and the non-parallel lyrical constructions which permeate this album, are unlikely to gain Bat for Lashes an army of new followers. It will, however, delight those who revel in Natasha Khan’s flair for producing albums of impressive scope and ambition. Perhaps just leave tracks 9-11 off your MP3 player and pretend this was only ever an eight-track album. Like one of Kate Bush’s.
Go Get It: ‘All Your Gold’ / ‘Horses Of The Sun’
Forget It: ‘Deep Sea Diver’ / ‘A Wall’