Music Reviews
The Haunted Man

Bat For Lashes The Haunted Man

(Parlophone) Rating - 8/10

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. Or rather, an album. The cover of The Haunted Man is a naked Natasha Khan, a.k.a. Bat For Lashes, staring directly at the camera, covered only by a man she wears over her shoulders. Appropriately, Bat For Lashes drops most of the elaborate ornamentation, overdriven synths, double-tracking, and overdubbing to let us get closer to her than ever before. Most tracks on The Haunted Man are a small orchestra and Khan’s beautiful voice. If you have ever dismissed her as a poor Bjork imitator, it’s time to embrace the Peter Gabriel influences behind the façade, as Khan reveals herself here as a strong and versatile songwriter, emotionally vulnerable but also alarmingly courageous, both lyrically and musically.

The abrupt shift from the heavily decorated persona to a more honest, humanistic one could have been messy. Khan’s style has always felt like a way of dealing with discomfort and lack of confidence, so that The Haunted Man sounds so natural, so assured, and yet just as beautiful as Two Suns or Fur & Gold is quite astonishing. Her voice is stronger than ever, her lyrics vivid and full of strong visual images invoking memories that need to be confronted, just as the title suggests; the lack of any overbearing decoration lets us see the talent underneath.

Stripped down, her songs are far more urgent and even more emotional, and the versatility that spans from the heavy, distorted chorus of Lilies to the simple ache of Laura reveals a side of Bat For Lashes we have wanted to hear since Two Suns. These songs glisten with well-timed orchestrations and relatively sparse production, and an emphasis on vocal lends each of these that urgency that her music has always needed. Khan sings of “the promises you’re making” and of “the sweet nothings you whisper” in All Your Gold, but with an almost condescending reminiscence before going into her upper register for a more honest look at the damage done, an accusatory shift that makes every line feel stacked with double meanings. It’s a duality that recurs throughout The Haunted Man, with the multiple identities, the damaged, scared, brave, and powerful all melding, along with the various influences, to deliver an album that, through all its beauty, is unafraid to be harsh and confrontational, as if it has a very distinct audience in mind.

The Haunted Man comes out of the gate strong, and while it’s hard to detect any kind of progression in the album, it is, from one end to the other, a varied and rich depiction of what happens when one lets their entire personality speak. Winter Fields is one of the most lusciously textured Bat For Lashes songs yet, blending Khan’s natural imagery with a bleak narrative in a comfortable but honest form, while the title track reaches an emotional climax of such strength that it feels like Khan has been trying to reach it her entire career. Constant, snare-heavy drumming and a bass heavy backbone propel backing vocals that escalate tension until suddenly Khan’s voice takes over the song, only to drop out as suddenly as it was introduced. Several of these tracks rank among her best work, narratively strong and gorgeously orchestrated.

Perhaps most compelling is the piano-driven, whisper-sung Laura, decorated with the occasional high note and a crescendo leading to the “Oh Laura, you’re more than a superstar” that sound more like a push to be yourself than an admiration of it. An orchestra comes in on the second verse, and each chorus sounds slightly more urgent than the previous, and through each turn the song takes, it remains a stunning, life-affirming demand to let oneself show through. Even when it segues into the sonic fullness of Winter Fields, it leaves a lasting impression that permeates the album, like Khan is singing to expel the ghosts of her past.

Still, if The Haunted Man is held back by one thing—and it is—it’s an overreliance on the same vocal patterns. There is a respectable amount of musical variation, as pianos, orchestras, and guitars are used in different, sometimes new ways, but Khan teases listeners and slowly builds up to her upper register before unleashing her operatic pipes in a somewhat formulaic way. Her voice is great on every track of the album, so it’s hard to complain too much, but if the Bjork side came out just a little bit more, particularly on The Haunted Man’s more comfortable back half, she could have something really special.

Regardless, that’s a note to look at again before the next album. The Haunted Man is still one of the best albums of the year, with 11 songs are dense and ambitious enough lyrically and varied enough musically to reward repeated listens. There’s an undeniable beauty running throughout the album, but there is also such a comfortable departure from the form of the first two records that it might be too easy for Khan. Like Two Suns and Fur & Gold, The Haunted Man is so effortlessly emotive that it seems to demand that we demand even more from it. Or at least, it would, if it weren’t so easy to get lost in the many layers of these melodies and start thinking about the ghosts that Bat For Lashes is trying to chase away.