It would be extremely base to reduce Natasha Khan’s musical efforts under the stage name Bat For Lashes to a melting pot of past female pop artists like Kate Bush, Björk and Fiona Apple. They’re still making masterful music today, and are influential in countless ways to the female pop arena, but do not eclipse Khan’s sonic aesthetic.
The general animosity towards the female artist still exists in today’s hegemonic musical elite. As the reviews come out, there will be countless comparisons between Khan’s new album “The Haunted Man” and the other avant-garde women of the last 20 years. Many will ignore the subtle nuances of her third release, instead complacently casting it aside as a retread of past, exclusively female innovation.
Bat For Lashes’ 2009 release “Two Suns” saw U.K.’s Khan depart from her debut album with songs like “Sleep Alone” and “Moon and Moon.” These tracks displayed the delicate twitches of Bush’s “Hounds of Love,” while vocally recalling a synthesis of a wayward elf mixed with PJ Harvey.
“The Haunted Man,” however, is more idiosyncratic and less mystical. This transformation is aggressively revealed upon viewing the album artwork. Khan stands naked, a man draped around her neck as a lifeless trophy. Instead of a sexual object, Khan seeks to neutralize female objectivity. Her pose is sterile but thoughtful, lashing back at pop culture’s tendency to sell image over music.
In its composition, the album is a teeming sea of modern intellectual pop. It’s not uncommon to hear strings paired with an electronic synthesizer thump, for example in opener “Lilies.” Khan flutters in quietly with reverberating guitar before exploding into an electronic chorus that she strengthens with a sweeping string section. And on the titular track, the long bridge finds Khan summoning a chanting male army to counteract her own potency.
Khan explores more straightforward pop in “Marilyn” and “Rest Your Head,” which both plod along before bursting into anthemic refrains. The former is a spectral ascent, romanticizing the female celebrity as a ghost of the past, while the latter finds solace in partnership. Khan is able to create poetic and difficult songs that still remain compulsively listenable.
Thus, Bat For Lashes succeeds on “The Haunted Man” by being a compilation of challenging human expression. Khan is a reckoning vocal force who promotes a symbolic retreat in pop music, further buttressed by off-kilter production. “Thank God, I’m alive,” Khan belts on “Lilies” — her introductory coda rings true throughout “The Haunted Man,” promoting an existential revelry for anyone who listens.