Have you heard the (stunning, perfect) new Bat for Lashes album “The Haunted Man?” I have decided to attempt a review but before I begin, I thought it prudent to spend a few moments talking about the album artwork, which features perhaps the most compelling cover (warning: NSFW) I’ve seen in quite some time: Natasha Khan (aka Bat for Lashes) without clothes, holding an equally unclad man who’s draped over her shoulders and whose limbs obscure the more intimate parts of her anatomy.
It’s an arresting photograph in and of itself, but is also a force to be reckoned with because it cleverly uses sheer physicality to communicate the possibly endless string of images that are conjured by the album’s title. Khan stands resolute and unflinching, with only the veins in her hands betraying the fact that it must’ve been exhausting to repeatedly hold up this man for the shoot. It’s as honest an image as you can get in this day and age; Khan describes her thought process behind the cover saying “I got really fed up with seeing women naked and feeling unempowered by it as opposed to empowered […] so I didn’t shave my legs, I didn’t dye my moustache, and I didn’t pluck my eyebrows.” No photoshopping either. There is a courage, authenticity, and power in all this that I would ruin should I try to describe it, and I haven’t even begun the “music” part of the review.
The album opens with the fantastic song “Lilies,” with Khan’s vocals swirling from whispered, fragile beginnings into a joyful, almost regal (the inclusion of a horn section is helpfully evocative) celebration of life. It’s a song about dreams materialising into some kind of reality; the image the song portrays for me is of fog crawling over a landscape, finally parting to reveal, tangibly, something longed for. Little wonder that the trajectory of “Lilies” inclines to the “figure of a man waving upon the hill.”
In my opinion, the moment is when Khan sings “Thank god I’m alive,” as if her voice flings something into being. It sounds entirely appropriate and delightful in relation to the the journey of the song, but it also sounds like she has traveled some distance to arrive at the authenticity of sentiment which undergirds her singing these lines. Perhaps she has really come out of the post-album creative void she went through after “Two Suns” (her sophomore effort), the dissolution of a previous relationship, and the fairly palpable sense of loneliness she felt prior to beginning work on “The Haunted Man.” She most definitely sounds the better for it.
“Oh Yeah” manages to incorporate a would-be trite vocal sample (“Oh yeah, oh yeah!”) to great effect. Buoyant beat programming and a pretty killer chorus don’t hurt either. The song is also a microcosm for the album’s sense of arrangement and space. Like the best albums, “The Haunted Man” doesn’t repeat clever melodic lines to the point of exhaustion, opting instead to allow certain instruments moments of respite from the spotlight so that others can shine. Khan’s attitude towards songcraft on this album is one of patience; everything feels refreshingly unhurried and deliberate. It’s probably for this reason that only one of the songs is three minutes (3:43 to be precise) and, perhaps more interestingly, why EMI (Bat for Lashes’ label) neither heard a single on “The Haunted Man,” nor were that into the record initially.
As I’ve reflected on the album, I think a case can be made that Natasha Khan may not only sit comfortably alongside labelmate Kate Bush, but may even be close to surpassing her. I love Kate Bush, and I hear echoes of her reverberating in Bat for Lashes songs like “Laura” – a masterclass in balladry steered mostly by Khan’s voice and a piano, and buttressed by the warmth of an Abbey Road string and horn section – and “Marilyn.” “Marilyn” is reminiscent of Bush’s excellent song “This Woman’s Work,” especially in terms of the allure and force of its vocal melody. It’s a strange and personal admission to be sure, but especially when I hear Khan sing the chorus, I feel an almost paternal sense of pride in Bat for Lashes – as if I’m witnessing the moment when someone discovers what they were born to do.
Speaking of echoes reverberating, how can I neglect mentioning the album’s titular track? To get the sound of the men’s choir that bridges the song’s two parts, Khan shelled out her own cash (this is what happens when EMI doesn’t dig your album – just ask Kate Bush) to go to Italy with producer David Kosten and record “the men singing three-part harmonies from the edge of a canyon, their voices ricocheting back off of the opposite cliff face.” The patience so apparent in songcraft is similarly evident in the recording process and in this case, the diligence and attention to detail pays rich emotional dividends.
“The Haunted Man” (the song) begins with digital pulses that sound like morse code, as if someone from the past is trying to dial into your consciousness. It complements the lyrics, where Khan sings of not sleeping, trying to forget someone, and yet being unable not to hear “the old man and the sea singing low.” The dial-sounding beats give way to the men’s choir and the march of a snare drum (a real “analog” sound, if you will), only to reappear in the last portion of the song. It’s a magnificent moment, portraying in form how we learn to hold the past and present, apparition and reality, in tension. The acceptance of this tension and the refusal to abandon it, coupled with the melodic strength when Khan sings “I can’t run,” is deeply moving and is one of my favourite moments of the record.
Though Khan assumes the posture of one who is bearing the weight of someone else’s (and perhaps her own) hauntedness on the album, she shows she’s not only up to the task, but is even able to flourish under the circumstances. In her own words, she says that prior to the writing and recording of the album, she was hit by “this bolt of joy, the rawness of what it’s like to be a human being.” The album exudes this sense of joy; thank God she’s alive and willing to share it with the rest of us.