Album Review: Bat For Lashes – The Haunted Man
Originally published on Unpublished: A Young Writers’ Literary Journal. My first contribution to the website, I’ll be reviewing an album and submitting creative pieces on Unpublished monthly from now on. I hope you enjoy the first album review for the journal – definitely check it out for a great source of material from talented young writers: http://unpublishedjournal.co.uk/?page=review
Setting out to make a “stripped-back” record can turn out to be a poisoned chalice for some artists. Removing excessive elements can unclutter the space and present a more refined style, but go too far and they risk losing what had their audiences captivated in the first place. When the third album of Natasha Khan’s Bat For Lashes was announced as being a much more restrained affair than her two eye-popping first albums, there were concerns that she would flounder without the elaborate productions of old backing her.
But satisfyingly, the spacious, deliberate The Haunted Man makes for sumptuous listening. There are frequent moments of transcendence which are devastating in their simplicity (just listen to the album’s first single Laura, in which that voice is joined only by a funereal piano and flutters of woodwind), but Khan hasn’t abandoned her taste for dramatics. The Haunted Man is a theatrical listen, with the sweeping landscapes painted by Khan’s lyrics complemented with a spooky, widescreen aesthetic.
Inspired by artists including Patti Smith, Khan has crafted a captivating third record which is quite possibly her strongest yet: art-pop dressed in a tasteful mixture of rustic instrumentation and electronics. Thematically, The Haunted Man never definitively adheres to one particular focal point, but it mostly seems to follow individuals haunted and burdened by the effects of war, bound in a wintry depiction of pastoral England. Winter Fields evokes its titular image via archaic strings and wind instruments, as Khan paints a vivid scene of a family “hurtling through heavy snow”. Elsewhere, the title track corrals a multitude of male singers in a battle-march which sounds like a reaction to PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake.
On paper, the lyrics seem stark and simple, but Khan breathes life and poignancy into her raw writing, transforming unassuming lines into moments offering vivid imagery. “You’re the train that crashed my heart,” she professes during Laura, before sighing that “your tears feel hot on my bedsheets”. Her confessionals also seem much more direct on this outing, especially when her operatic voice is finally let loose in a manner which may draw comparisons to Florence Welch. Yet Khan never lets the bombast get the best of her, only unleashing her full potential sporadically, in order to maximise the emotional impact. Opener Lilies is a triumph of songwriting, building from its pared-down opening to a breathtakingly open-chested cry of “thank God I’m alive”.
Occassionally, as beneath Marilyn’s dystopian sheen, the lyrics can become disappointingly vague, resulting in the grandeur of several moments feeling somewhat hollow. But as the album progresses, and the electronic elements gradually begin to take over, one begins to forgive these shortcomings and instead notice the tiny details of wonder. The album never quite reaches a conclusive catharsis, but as Khan breathes “baby, let your scream come” over the ethereal waves of Deep Sea Diver, she hints that there is hope glimmering on the horizon. And ultimately, for all its inventive musicality and its beautifully-rendered darkness and despair, the quiet promise of eventual peace is what makes The Haunted Man such a powerful listen.
“Thank God I’m alive.”