The worst thing about the new Bat for Lashes record The Haunted Man is its cover art. That’s not to say the Ryan McGinley photo featuring a fully nude Natasha Khan wearing an equally nude man as a shawl that covers up her private parts is bad or even distasteful. It is the opposite in fact, a work of high-minded art that’s absolutely representative of the sort of music you will find within. Only the best cover art work will achieve such prominence. So what, in turn, makes it the worst thing about this album? Because the first thing that comes to mind when seeing it is, “ooh, provocative and sexy!” and that’s not what this music is. Meanwhile some 16-year-old boy with a parental locked internet connection is filing it away somewhere to fulfill his own dark desires. The point being, that while this is one of the smartest and most beautiful album covers to come along in a while, most won’t see it that way. In fact, the controversial nature of it sucks all the attention away from the actual music, which absolutely is smart and beautiful. It’s also hopelessly raw and sparse in spite of the multi-instrumental set pieces and full orchestration contained within. Khan’s bravura vocals handle most of the intense emotion, and the peeling back of echoes, reverb and other treatments that were thrown in on her last album Two Suns allows you to connect better with the true human underneath that window dressing.
Of course you listen to a track like the opener “Lilies” and the combination of synths and strings borders on overbearing until her voice cuts through the dissonance and soars when she sings the line, “Thank God I’m alive!” Where the true heart of The Haunted Man really lies is in the sobering piano and vocal pairing on “Laura.” At what might as well be called the center point of the record, the song sits on an island all its own as we’re told all about the amazing Laura, who’s “more than a superstar.” The better we come to know her through the lyrics and the way she’s described, the more we begin to believe in such a mythical creature. If you thought Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” was a perfect piano ballad single, “Laura” should satisfy in almost equal measure. And wouldn’t you know it, both songs were co-written by Justin Parker. For fans of Gotye’s “Somebody I Used to Know,” there’s more familiarity to be found via the single “All Your Gold.” The two tracks feature the same basic rhythm pattern and structure, along with the inevitable malaise that comes with the ending of a relationship. The chorus to “All Your Gold” even features the line, “There was someone that I knew before,” which to some will seem just a little too on the nose. The Bat for Lashes track is arguably the better one though, removing any theatricality and cutting straight to the bone in its words and composition. Really any comparisons you draw from this record, to the points where some of the synth-baiting electronic textures come across as remarkably M83-ish or the very Kate Bush-ian nature contained in most everything Khan does, are great reference points.
But in the end that’s ALL they are: windows into a world of music we might otherwise not fully understand or grasp. See, Bat for Lashes is so much more than a collection of things that sound like other things. Khan is a true original, and the words she writes, along with the intense emotion that echoes in her voice through every note, set her apart from any similarly-minded music peers. “Oh Yeah” is a great example of this. Many a person has tried to fill a void in their life via sex, but few artists have accurately echoed that tumultuous period as well as Khan does here. “I’m looking for a lover to climb inside / Waiting like a flower to open wide / I’m in bloom” makes for one of the most overtly sexual choruses since the tUnE-yArDs song “Powa” from 2011. Like that song, there’s a newfound sense of freedom and excitement in the vocals that pushes the listener into believing this remedy will finally create a sense of wholeness, however temporary. The point being that while the solution to 99% of life’s problems isn’t sex, for the five minutes of that song Khan earnestly wants to believe it is, and so do we.
As with any sexual encounter, there’s a certain amount of baggage that each person brings to the table that stems from past relationships and past experiences. It points to the more overarching theme of The Haunted Man, which is that we’re all living with ghosts whether we like it or not. Of course those ghosts are metaphorical, but we still allow them to weigh on our spirits. They go beyond the flesh of our bodies and can’t be covered up no matter how many layers of clothes we wear. This record is filled with those ghosts, “Laura” and “Marilyn” among them, but what’s most important is how Khan deals with it. Instead of letting their fates and legacies align with hers, she gets acquainted with her demons and finds the path to managing them without losing sight of her own identity. It makes for a great life lesson, and an even better record.