Bat For Lashes
The Haunted Man
Tom Lundregan, November 5, 2012
The third album from Bat for Lashes, The Haunted Man, is a departure from both 2007’s Fur and Gold and 2009’s Two Suns. Bat for Lashes, the stage name of Natasha Khan, used Two Suns to take listeners to the American desert with Khan’s alter-ego, Pearl. This time around, Khan takes us back to her native England, back to church steeples, the Sussex coast, winter fields of snow, and lilies on the hill that “scented the night.”
If not quite an evolution, there is definitely change afoot on The Haunted Man. The album’s cover offers the first clue. The cover is simply a naked Khan carrying a strategically placed “haunted man.” She’s serving notice of the bare, stripped down songs to come. This isn’t a stage presence or alter ego – it’s ostensibly a Bat for Lashes record – but it’s really Natasha Khan, showing us more Natasha, intimate, spare, haunting, melodic. I have already heard some call this a bad thing – a move to become more commercial and less daring. It is just the opposite, however. Khan is shedding gimmick, opening herself. While that may result in less of a club beat in the music, it also results in clarity of voice, a minimalistic approach to prevent intrusion on the feeling, the ambience, the imagery of the lyrics.
The only songs on The Haunted Man with other noticeable vocals are a male choir chanting softly on “Oh Yeah” and, appropriately, on the title track. Otherwise, this is all her – at least vocally. Beck is reported to have had a hand in at least one song (“Marilyn”), though he is not listed in the liner notes of the album. Khan did have production, engineering and mixing help from Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio and Portishead’s Adrian Utley. The biggest hand in The Haunted Man outside Khan, though, is Dan Carey who has already recently produced Hot Chip, Yeasayer, Django Django and Lianne La Havas. His presence here is as a producer, mixer and engineer, but his work as a percussionist and keyboardist is notable on the album’s second track, “All Your Gold.”
Although compared at various times to Björk or Tori Amos, Khan is actually more evocative of Kate Bush. On The Haunted Man she echoes Bush not just vocally, but in the imagery of her lyrics. Mentions of Earth, fogs, clouds and ice would have fit right in on Bush’s Hounds of Love even though that album was released over 25 years ago.
This album feels fresh, though, as it ruminates on the ghosts of friendship, the ghosts of love, the ghosts that stay in our memory and sometimes prevent us from moving forward. The album opens with just Khan’s voice and soft guitar on “Lilies,” building into mini-crescendos of drum and keyboards. It’s a perfect album opener, setting the tone for the rest of the record. The next two songs, “All Your Gold” and “Horses of the Sun,” are standouts. “All Your Gold” has a bouncy rhythm and tells of a woman who has nothing left to give a good man because of what’s been done to her in the past. “Horses of the Sun” follows with a tribal drumbeat, a quick turn of strings, a more hollow vocal and a different tale – as the singer is now saved because of the love of a good man.
The album doesn’t have any of Two Suns’ heavy synthesizer or reverb effect until “Oh Yeah” – the one track where the instrumentation speaks. It’s still not quite the danceable track of Bat For Lashes’ biggest single, “Daniel,” but it does have more of a beat than the other songs here, until it fades into swirling piano for the last thirty seconds. “Laura,” the album’s first single is also its strongest song. It has an orchestral feel, with horns and strings slowly added to a soft piano. The song, with lyrics that might recall either an ex-lover or a dear friend, also provides the greatest showcase for the range of Khan’s voice.
The Haunted Man does have its misfires. “Marilyn” is almost an echo of “Laura” about a dear friend who is a “star.” Its pleasing beat and melody is marred by the inclusion of yodeling and silly calls of “yoo hoo.” “Rest Your Head” is too Kate Bush, replete with 80s synthesized beats and Bush song titles inserted in the lyrics – “running up hills” and “that big old sky.”
Even with these minor quibbles though, everything still feels that it has purpose here, and that purpose is to showcase Natasha Khan as an introspective, creative force. With The Haunted Man, she has created something that is fully hers as she lays herself open and exposed to the audience – not as Pearl or even Bat for Lashes, just Natasha.
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