“The Haunted Man” – Bat for Lashes

4 stars (out of 5)

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So.  I won’t be referring to the album cover art, Kate Bush or Florence and her posh Machine in this review. It seems as though no-one can discuss Nastasha Khan aka Bat For Lashes third album without referring to one of these three, detracting from the music offered here which is always interesting, sometimes beautiful and at times complex beyond necessity.  Bat For Lashes does remind me of many other artists on this album though and because of this I’m still not convinced that she is the true original that I hoped she may be evolving into.

More than anything else Khan has proved that she is a skilled song writer, 2009’s “Daniel” was a brilliant piece of smart pop and this time the name “Laura” has been chosen for the best thing that she may have put her name to. When first heard it marked her out as someone to now be taken seriously and as a lead single it was a brave move such is its starkness and mournful beauty. Maybe if it was recorded by Lana Del Rey it would have been a big hit, the themes of fractured glamour and forged identities that are apparent in “Video Games” are replicated with “Laura” although Khan doesn’t play the victim role like Del Rey, the soaring strength in her vocal is a life saver. So is it just a coincidence that both songs were co-written by Justin Parker? Khan apparently wanted a simply structured piano ballad for the album and approached Parker after liking what he done with Lana Del Rey and who really cares anyway when Natasha Khan sings the song so well and the impact is so devastating. “Laura” goes some distance in giving this album its heart and soul; there’s nothing else like it here. Bat For Lashes has since conception been an artist inextricably linked with a  very strong  physical image, that of gothic, mystical, medievalist and with “Laura” that appeared to have shifted somewhat to Natasha Khan, the person behind the feathers and Steeple Hennin hat but that isn’t quite the case.

According to Khan this was an album that almost never got made, suffering from tour burnout and struggling for inspiration she eventually, along with some help from her very talented friends (Beck, David Sitek and Adrian Utley amongst others), got it together and recorded this album with a theme of re-found strength and a newly discovered love of life. Some of these tracks are from the prospective of the usual Khan heroine referencing wars, blood and dying men and it’s on some of these tracks where she sometimes struggles. “Horses Of The Sun” continues to add layers of sound to the final choruses but lacks the proper climax it’s crying out for and the title track has a stand-alone male choir and military drumming but it all seems superfluous and trying too hard in the absence of a really good song. The opening track “Lilies”, with its cry of ‘I’m Alive!’, again struggles amongst its own bluster of r’n’b beats and percussion and strings (this following an intro that sounds like “Song To The Siren”) and “Marilyn” is a complete oddity; half way through the twitchy, skittering beats and flimsy melody a middle-eight of yodelling, chipmunk ‘yoo hoo’s!’ appears. It’s funny and unexpected but little else.

Leaving these, albeit fascinating but not fully realised tracks aside, there are some incredible songs and sounds here. Second single “All Your Gold”’s strutting guitar line introduction is a shock, it’s funky and possessed and not at all an indication of how it ends up; flecks of harp, strings gradually unfurling and an angular synth motif wrap themselves around Khan’s sumptuous vocals. The electro triptych of “A Wall”, “Rest Your Head” and, in particular, the ghoulish “Oh Yeah” (a drum machine and a loop of distorted male chorus of ‘Oh Yeah, Oh Yeah’s’) have a lightness to them and are a continuation from some of the musical themes established in “Two Suns”. She knows how to use space on these tracks which is no small skill and takes it way beyond the standard, electro scare pop material. “Winter Fields’” encapsulates what I hoped this album would be though, a perfect mesh of electronic and acoustic and Khan’s cool vocals state ‘In sub zero I can’t stand still, colours of absence flooding the hill’ and you swear you can see them; gorgeous stuff.

“The Haunted Man” is an album made by an artist who genuinely wants to make something special, who cares enough but has struggled a little in making something bigger than they’re capable of, at least for now. Khan has proved several times over now that she is a diverting and distinct presence, her voice can soothe and scare in equal measure and this album, which is still her best to date, is a solid demonstration of that along with her sometimes inspired musical instincts and deft songwriting.