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English singer-songwriter Natasha Khan, better known as Bat For Lashes, came in to prominence in 2009 with her sophomore album Two Suns. On that album, Khan created lush soundscapes and paired them against her elegantly haunting vocals to create a sound distinctly hers. After 3 years, Khan has followed up Two Suns with the highly anticipated Haunted Man, where she strips the album of some ambiance to clear the haze that shrouds her best feature, her chilling and individualistic vocal talents.
Khan wastes no time in setting the precedent of a vocally driven album, singing on the first second of album opener “Lillie”. In the explosive chorus, she exclaims “Thank God I’m alive!”, a line that is particularly resonant considering the history of the song. Suffering from writers block, Khan began to associate the inability to write music with death, and when finally finding the inspiration to start the creative process with the writing of “Lillie” its no wonder she is so glad to be alive. Her newfound sense of being breathes life into the track and the sparse instrumentation allows her to explore winding vocal melodies, making the song feel eerily human.
The next song “All Your Gold” sounds like if Tom Waits attempted to write a Top 40 hit and have an accessible female vocalist front it. The quirky and clumsy percussion punctuates the layered orchestral and synthetic instrumentation. The pairing of the classic and the foreign or strange is a trend that Khan continues throughout the album. Whether is be pairing electronic dance drums with orchestral arrangements, exploring unconventional melodies in a conventional singing style, or singing straightforward melodies in an eerie, unconventional vocal style, Khan always finds away to make catch the listener off guard.
Throughout the album, Khan explores a type of twisted spirituality with her music, like in the songs “House of the Suns”, “Oh Yeah”, and the title track. On “House of Suns”, Khan creates a moody and somber atmosphere through dissonance and, more notably, choir like backing vocals reminiscent of a church hymn. She sings “And all was alive/ you and me/Busting out the heavens” This sense of spirituality is furthered in “Oh Yeah” with the confusing, unsettling use of robotic sounding spiritual chants. By giving such a personal experience a robotic quality, Khan is simultaneously blurring the line between the organic and the unnatural, and the spiritual and the physical. Lyrically, the song explicitly addresses sexual frustration, a twisted and dark concept in the context of spirituality. The music reflects this unsettling feeling; the unresolved melodies parallel the frustration and tension addressed in the lyrics, and the sporadic and unpredictable electronic snare hits punctuate and intensify the tension. The track is impressively cohesive, and there is much depth to its implications and meanings beyond simply the words Khan sings. In “Haunted Man”, Khan uses a similar method to discomfort the listener and make them question spirituality. In the song, a male church choir sings an extended piece describing a rather “haunted” sexual encounter. On the surface, the concept is sinister and sinful, but Khan’s elegance in presentation makes it presentable, giving the album thought provoking and resonant thematic weight.
On the standout track “Winter Fields”, Khan begins the track with what sounds like the score to a wintery scene in an old Disney movie. However, Khan replaces typical Disney whimsicality with her signature darkness, and the lyrics follow suit. Rather than romanticizing the season, Khan presents the cold as an aggressor against sanity. It reads like a Jack London story where instead of nature conquering the human body, it conquers the human mind.
Khan proves with the singles “Laura” and “Marilyn” that she can make extremely accessible and universally emotionally relevant songs without sacrificing her individuality. On the song “The Wall”, when she sings, “Where you see a wall I see a door” she could easily be addressing her contemporaries of her style of music. Conventions that may cause others to fall victim to musical clichés, she sees as an entrance into musical freedom and individualistic expression. And it is her individualism that makes Haunted Man so captivating.