"Listening to the album at times feels like being pulled out of a whirlpool, then watching it swirl so nicely behind you."
“Thank God I’m alive,” Natasha Khan cries. Her voice is strained; you can hear her ribs and eyes tense. Then again: “Thank God I’m alive,” this time with craw, with more insistence. The music drops out as you’d expect, and when it returns it’s the sort of strings and brass, pomp and orchestrations that’s even more expected. But it’s not overwrought, and nor is the sentiment; mention death enough in a ballad like “Lilies,” and you’re setting yourself up for either grief or catharsis. The words still shock, though, especially while bursting from The Haunted Man’s first track when such lines would traditionally dwell in the doldrums of side two. It’s too much emotion, too early; it’s utterly ambiguous in the most obvious way. And it’s absolutely necessary.
Khan’s earned it, after all, during a lonely post-tour slump when work was impossible, days were dull and, one imagines, when thankfulness, God and living all seemed unconvincing. “What do you do when you feel like you’re going to die because you can’t write anything?” she recalled asking former tourmate Thom Yorke in an interview with Pitchfork’s Laura Snapes. His advice was, roughly, to do other things. So she did, and eventually songs made their way out of the struggle -- or, more precisely, the struggle made their way into them. Everything on The Haunted Man is either about being alive, struggling to get there or pleading with someone else to try: the fallen starlet of “Laura,” the ghost in the past on the title track, the unnamed people running and crying on the entire back half. Listening to the album at times feels like being pulled out of a whirlpool, then watching it swirl so nicely behind you.
(This is where it probably should be noted that there are naked people on the album cover. Nothing more on that needs to be noted.)
Not that The Haunted Man doesn’t have more obvious reference points. The first is routine: the Kate Bush comparison, which for women in art-rock is a rite of passage that comes right after the textual leer and before the belaboring of naked people on album covers. Bat for Lashes got it since the beginning, usually for style more than substance. But the particular world-weary shudders in Khan’s voice as she begins “Lilies” are eerily similar to late-period Bush; if you played “Lilies” back to back with, say, Bush’s “Sunset,” you could fool people. That’s even before “thank God I’m alive” mirrors The Dreaming’s “I love life,” before Khan starts her character sketches and recruits her male choirs, before she puts “running up hills” and “big old sky” in the same song. Or if that’s too coincidental, large stretches of The Haunted Man come off as Khan trying to recreate what’s going on with synthpop the way Bush did with her Fairlight in the ‘80s. It takes a while to realize just how ubiquitous half the sounds are -- the distant, sampled claps, the pittering percussion, the synths ping-ponging their way through “All Your Gold” and “Rest Your Head.” You almost forget Bat for Lashes didn’t invent them.
Bat for Lashes didn’t invent mysticism either, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so by reading anything about her in the past years. To be fair, she played it up; had Fur and Gold come out this year, its witchy aesthetic would probably have gotten Khan her own shabby chic Pinterest tie-in and line of scarves. Khan’s since shied away from this, partly because of the inherent cultural appropriation and partly because everyone else is doing it. The Haunted Man isn’t stripped-down, exactly (despite, again, the cover). If anything, Khan’s arrangements have gotten more intricate and varied; the shimmery new wave that worked so well on “Daniel” is back, but the abandoned orchestra that putters through “Winter Fields,” the piano afterglow of “Oh Yeah” and the twittery bridge of samples on “Marilyn” feel entirely new. It’s the content that’s stripped down. Two Suns shrouded its pain in dream logic and conceptual storylines, but while The Haunted Man has its fancies, they tend to be more straightforward. Two Suns’ “Sleep Alone” is about sleeping around, but it spun a tale of suns ascending and hearts dragged into the fire; it’d never allow a line so direct as “Oh Yeah”’s “kiss my thighs.” And “Lilies” is plenty enigmatic -- anything sincere about children conceived in milk pretty much inherently is -- but it doesn’t hinge on the woo-woo but that cry of being alive. Everything lives in the real world.
Not that that’s always a good thing. Single “All Your Gold” could be a spiritual sequel to Fur and Gold’s “Trophy,” except stark -- clunky, even -- about its subject matter where the latter cloaked it in intrigue, in mercy-struck jesters and mystical fur trim. The chorus is blunt: there was someone that she knew before, he took all her gold, joy and identity, and now there’s nothing left for her but the very nice nullity from “What’s a Girl to Do” who’d never inspire such flights of fantasy. So she laments to herself over a husk of a bassline and chimes like clinking cage bars, so desiccated the chorus doesn’t quite soar but plead for sound or feeling anywhere. She doesn’t criticize this guy, exactly, and you don’t blame her. He’s a good man, after all; he’s a good man, and she’s wandering the city in tears, “a dead girl walking.” The love notes he leaves for her after work probably wouldn’t do any good from anybody. Nothing can get through to her, no man or epiphany -- so there isn’t any. The track ends without resolution, then the next one rewrites the whole thing. “I cursed the road, I cursed the road, and then I came home to the love you gave,” Khan sings, sullen enough, but then there’s “and I was alive,” over chords that sound bewildered at the prospect, then the exalting chorus about horses on the sun and outlaws running and her old fantasias. A couple songs later, she’s back to standing by her old man, the one who haunts her.
This is Bat for Lashes’ second song, at least, themed around horses (the first being “Horse and I”) which would seem like a bad idea if it didn’t work so well. The same goes for “Laura,” co-written with Lana Del Rey collaborator Justin Parker and clearly treading the same Hollywood boards. It’d be cynical as hell if Khan didn’t agonize over every word as if Laura were right in front of her, hungover and despaired. When the track was released as a single, people suggested it was about Laura Palmer, which’d be even more cynical; it could be, but it doesn’t need to be (and if we’re guessing names, Sarah, Prescilla and Karen are all unidentified.) If anything, Laura is Pearl from Two Suns; the song’s even more wrenching if you hear it as a sequel to “The Big Sleep,” even if that scuppers the whole album’s theme. At least “Marilyn” is explicit about its subject, though that’s not necessarily a good thing. Songs about Marilyn Monroe are so common that you could probably walk outside and stumble over one on the doorstep, but Khan just sidesteps the cliché by making her a metaphor (“Holding you, I’m touching a star/ Turning into Marilyn, leaning out of your big car”) and setting it to dead-bedroom instrumentation. At first. It’s yet another track that swells up to a big life-affirming chorus, which doesn’t quite suit Monroe’s life but suits The Haunted Man just fine. If Two Suns had a couple anthems and a few songs (the Pearl ones, mostly) that could be adopted as anthems in the right mood, The Haunted Man is all anthems, all soaring triumphs and string-section swells. In other hands, this would come off overdone, but Khan achieves that ambition and more. This is an album that bleeds with empathy; it’s enough to save a life.
Bat For Lashes’ The Haunted Man is out today via Parlophone. Stream it at NPR.