Rating:If there are differences between The Haunted Man and Natasha Khan’s past efforts under the Bat for Lashes moniker, they’re minor. No significant adjustments to the basic sound over 2009’s Two Suns and debut Fur and Gold were made. The Kate Bush comparisons hold. Powerful opener “Lilies” and standout “Winter Fields” display the same vocal aplomb and dazzling melds of disparate stylistic touches equal to career highlights “Glass” and “Prescilla.” Early ear candy “All Your Gold” skips along with a simple rhythm but, like “Rest Your Head,” inflates by its close, echoing a common, dramatic character of the Bat for Lashes aesthetic. “A Wall” is lively and electro-infused, swamped by bubbling lights in a revolving synth line and goopy textures. After Khan takes a few bold optimist stances (“Where you see a wall/ I see a door”) and wryly declares, “Inside his mouth I lick the scars,” vocals bounce in from the background and flood a fleeting outro.
But where her 2006 debut’s rough hewn minimalism and Two Suns’ polished bombast played up the distinct character of each track, The Haunted Man is more streamlined. Tidy hooks leak out sugary textures. The songs’ pop conventions, having shed some of the stylistic mélange layered on them previously, are more prominent. Or would be, as a murk permeates the album and much of it moves at a relaxed pace. Even the stunning “Winter Fields,” save for high-flying strings and Khan’s equally soaring vocal turn, meanders. Khan wrings every ounce of pathos from already emotionally charged lines such as, “Under the stairs taps the metronome/ The diver suit that we’ve all outgrown/ I need to get to where the wild things roam” and slung low woodwinds and timpani are lent the accent of an owl’s cry. The additional detail of a slow breath cycle beating deep in the mix might be a seemingly bold choice, but it occurs against a backdrop more modulated than the polarization of prior outings.
Often Khan’s music paints landscapes of symbols and archetypes, celestial bodies, doppelgangers, dreams, horses, deserts, haunted men and a “Travelling Woman.” Khan not one to scrap a working formula, The Haunted Man also employs these recurrent motifs but manages to lend them a thematic freshness. Navigating the narrow straits and shallows of this man’s insides, she finds names (“Laura,” Marilyn”) inscribed on the walls of internal organs like cave paintings. Getting under the skin of her subjects, Khan’s lyrics shine a light on ex lovers and former identities drifting through the verses of each track, adopting some (“Holding you I’m touching a star/ Turning into a Marilyn/ Leaning out of your big car”) and lamenting others’ avarice (“I let him take all my gold/ And hurt me so bad/ Now for you, I have nothing left.” With each turn, her spectral contralto breathes life into them.
Less positively, the indomitable grooves carved out on Fur and Gold and “Daniel” are noticeably absent from the record, an extension of the difficulty that plagued Two Suns’ second half. This leaves The Haunted Man’s back end (particularly the title track and “Deep Sea Diver”) feeling similarly unmoored, its direction muddled. The lethargic “Laura” only exacerbates this, trading on the swaying physicality of “Oh Yeah” for flat arrangements. The lead single suffers in the hands of Justin Parker, known primarily for having produced Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games.” This contribution is strongly reminiscent of the latter, drab horns languishing deep in the folds of the mix, Parker’s ear for buoying strong pop songwriting so, well, so YouTube. And the location of “Laura” in the dead center of the record provides more of a drag than the lift needed, something standouts “Winter Fields” and “Marilyn” accomplish after it. The slow piano dirges of the variety Lia Ices’ classical palette uplift Khan’s subdued approach make roll around in the dirt, like ceaseless revisits of her previous “Sad Eyes.” Elsewhere The Haunted Man can come off overwrought (“Deep Sea Diver,” “Horses of the Sun”), and a few tracks might have found better homes on an EP, rarities comp or, with a fresh take, a later LP.
As of late the English music press has piled on Khan over her supposed kookiness. “Kooky” being, in the view of a critic employing it against her, “one of the most dispiriting adjectives in the English language.” In several reviews her spacey, hippy demeanor has been belabored and dissected. The Haunted Man’s Ryan Mcginley-shot album art, recreating another provocative work of the photographer’s, has been similarly examined under the microscope. As always, however, the primary focus on a Bat for Lashes record is the music: dynamic, dark, sensual, labyrinthine. Worlds wholly the creation of Natasha Khan. It may not match the theater of her first two albums, but The Haunted Man is certainly more cohesive and shows Khan shoring up already considerable skills.