Many critics were quick to surmise from the stellar piano ballad of a comeback single, Laura, and the Patti Smith-esque nature of the unveiled artwork (shot by the legendary Ryan McGinley) that The Haunted Man would be a more stripped-back offering compared to her previous records – carefully constructed worlds inhabited by alter-egos and dramatic musical flourishes. However, a full immersion into the album hints at an alternate message: this wasn’t so much stripped-back as utterly raw. The two ideas don’t seem too far apart, but here the distinction is made crystal clear. Of course, The Haunted Man is in every way a Bat For Lashes record – lush and emotive, with a strong narrative trajectory – but the route in order to get there has been made much more direct.
Early single All Your Gold is a thoroughly modern update on her sound, detailing the breakdown of a relationship over stalking guitar riffs and MPC drum beats. Natasha Khan has always had a penchant for fusing the organic with the electronic (even more so than Alt-J), and opener Lilies is her finest experiment. The deep electronic bass hits of its chorus are married harmoniously with soaring strings and a woodwind flutter as the song reaches its triumphant climax, leading Khan to yell ‘thank God I’m alive!’ Obviously then, this is an album about the celebration of the self.
This doesn’t preclude her from dabbling in characterisation however. Two of these tracks, Marilyn and the aforementioned Laura, find their titular characters in two differing stages of womanhood. In the latter, Khan finds Laura defeated, a shadow of her former self; she’s desperately willing her to regain her spirit, pleading ‘you’re the train that crashed my heart, you’re the glitter in the dark’. By contrast, Khan acts as voyeur to the Hollywood romance of Marilyn: ‘holding you I’m touching a star. Turning into a Marilyn, leaning out of your big car.’ Meanwhile the album’s centrepiece and title track might just be her greatest achievement yet. Beginning with sombre atmospherics, Khan’s voice becomes succeeded by a male choir. Gradually the song unravels as layers of instrumentation build, with Khan returning for a powerful climax before the track descends into a delicate coda.
Three albums into her career, The Haunted Man feels like a necessary appraisal of Bat For Lashes sound and vision. Indeed, it’s only appropriate that an act praised for high drama and conceptual arcs would form a progression out of a regression back to the personal and straightforward. The key here for Khan was remembering that a strongly woven narrative can be just as immersive if it is one rooted in reality, and this is where the album finds strength. As such, The Haunted Man proves that Natasha Khan is equally talented in conveying the earthly as she does the fantastical, and for Bat For Lashes that’s an admirable achievement.
Want to know how Bat For Lashes’ The Haunted Man headline tour fared? Check my live review here.