There are no small emotions in a Bat For Lashes song. Natasha Khan’s music presents a world of endless romance, where even numbers about platonic friendships take on a mythic grandeur. Her songs, always melodic and darkly atmospheric, can function on a superficial pop level but benefit greatly from deep emotional engagement. Bat For Lashes albums aren’t really intended for casual listening; they’re the sort of records you put on when you’re overcome with longing, lust, passion, despair, and other exhausting feelings. If you hear them at the right moment, they amp up your emotions and leave you feeling a bit drained.
The Haunted Man, Khan’s third album, mainly explores the tension and complexity in a relationship between distant, sullen, traumatized man and a nurturing, frustrated woman. Some cuts, like the ornate title track and the relatively upbeat “A Wall,” are focused on the conflict between these two personality types. In the latter, she sings “where you see a wall, I see a door” with equal measures of compassion and exasperation, which is exactly what you feel when you’re trying to help someone you love deal with depression and they push you away. This comes through loud and clear on the record, but even more so if you watch this clip of Khan performing the song in Poland earlier this year. She’s beaming as she sings the words, dancing around with pure joy. This is partly to do with the music, but it’s also a signal of intention: She’s not scolding this man, just doing her best to get him out a cycle of negative thinking. She just wants you to follow her lead.
Khan is even more compelling when she delves into the emotional state of characters who are frustrated and unfulfilled by their aloof partners. In “Lilies,” the lushly orchestrated opening track, she’s a woman who feels empty and lost until she finds herself in a fairytale moment that leaves her belting out “Thank God I’m alive!” at the song’s climax. The gothic “Oh Yeah” is sung from the perspective of a woman who declares that she’s “looking for a love to climb inside,” and conveys an earnest yearning for a passion she’s never known. It’s a desire for desire itself, not anyone or anything specific. Like Fiona Apple sings on her excellent album from earlier this year, she “just wants to feel everything.”
“Laura,” the album’s first single, is an outlier on the record. It’s the only song Khan has written with an outside collaborator – Justin Parker, who co-wrote half of Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die, and the track on the record that seems to stray from its unifying theme. It’s also the most starkly arranged piece of music, with Khan singing a loving ballad to a close friend over not much more than simple piano accompaniment. Khan was wise to keep it simple. Her voice is more than enough to carry the melody, and her phrasing conveys an overwhelming degree of empathy for a troubled friend. You feel her heart break for this woman, and sense the degree to which she’s willing to take on an emotional burden to support and encourage her to thrive. She may not be singing about a “haunted man” on “Laura,” but it’s clearly of a piece with the rest of the record at least in that it’s an expression of compassion, and in some way reckoning with what happens to a person when they care so deeply for someone that they give up a part of themselves.
Bat For Lashes’ new album The Haunted Man is out now, and you can buy it from Amazon among many other retailers.