Bat For Lashes – The Haunted Man

On her third album as Bat For Lashes, Natasha Khan touches that outer realm where pop music turns corny ‘Glee’ sentiments into ecstatic possibilities, writes EDWARD SHARP-PAUL.

First, let’s talk about the cover, shall we?

Aside from being a striking image, Natasha Khan’s choice of cover art (a portrait by the nudity-loving Ryan McGinley), is a clear statement of intent: No horses, new age-y headgear or floating orbs, just Khan, naked and unadorned. Except it’s still pretty laden with symbolism. I mean, there’s the “cleansing” motif of the monochrome nakedness – but there’s still the bloke hanging off her shoulders, too. As a metaphor for The Haunted Man it works pretty well, except it’s not necessarily the metaphor that Khan is trying to oh-so-subtly convey.

The Haunted Man strips things back, only to reveal ever-more intricate layers, metaphors, images. A lot of the album is confounding, but such knotty, ambitious artistic conceits are what make Khan so fascinating, and what make her missteps so easily forgiven.

Luckily there aren’t really any missteps here. The album opens with the Dave Sitek-assisted ‘Lilies’, the best song about writer’s block since Gwen Stefani’s ‘What You Waiting For?’. It’s beautiful chamber-pop, augmented by a sturdy synth groove (thanks, Dave!), and it comes on exactly like the musical awakening that it describes.

The title track hints at the inspiration behind the album, both in words and in sound. Playing the role of a patient war bride, Khan is interrupted by her man’s demons, an army that marches ever-closer (I mean this literally: The effect is startling). Khan fights back, though, claiming, “Your ghosts have got me too.” She is coming to some painful realisations in real time, all in front of our eyes: To be haunted is better than to be alone, and love is intrinsically painful.

If The Haunted Man is less histrionic than previous works – and it is, despite still being pretty bloody intense for a pop album – it’s probably due in no small part to Khan being in a far better emotional place than the state of romantic disintegration documented on Two Suns. Nonetheless, The Haunted Man is coloured by Khan’s mannered, theatrical singing, and her fondness for extravagant metaphors (“I was empty as the grave,” for example). It was conceived in the English countryside, and through lilies and winter fields, Khan is able to convey a nostalgic sense of that slightly mythical place.

“The Haunted Man is coloured by Khan’s mannered, theatrical singing, and her fondness for extravagant metaphors.”

Musically, there’s a whole lot going on to both match and undercut Khan’s lofty sentiments. Ecstatic strings, brass sections, massed male voices and twinkling piano flourishes all seem to drive her to climactic peaks. Meanwhile, fuzzed-out synths, stuttering drum programming, and myriad other processed sounds provide a cool, occasionally dissonant counterpoint.

This sonic palette, varied as it is, ties these 11 moments together without growing stale. Likewise, it softens the stylistic leaps – Khan tends to flit between torch songs, ballads and dirges on the one hand, and groove-based electro and pop on the other – that characterise a Bat For Lashes album.

Of course, none of this applies to ‘Laura’. It’s a proper ballad, the sort that would come across daggy – if it didn’t hit you right in the gut, that is. With only piano for accompaniment, along with understated touches of cello and French horn, Khan touches that outer realm, where pop music turns corny Glee sentiments into ecstatic possibilities. It’s co-written with Justin Parker (of Lana Del Rey’s ‘Video Games’ co-write fame), but it’s a sign of Khan’s sheer artistic presence that, like the handful of other co-writes on the album, you would never mistake it for anything other than her own, singular vision.

Pop stardom is a narrative-driven profession, and the Haunted Man is clearly intended as a plot twist in the Bat For Lashes story – but I’m unable to stick to the script on this one. The Haunted Man is no breakthrough, no redemption, just an album as powerful and as rewarding as Two Suns and Fur and Gold. Natasha Khan continues to prove herself a compelling artist. Leopards don’t change their spots, though. And neither do bats, apparently.