A picture might be worth a thousand words, but the stark NSFW cover of Bat for Lashes’ The Haunted Man says much more than that about the music contained in the album. While any written description of the artwork can’t quite capture what’s going on in it, suffice it to say that the black-and-white photo of Natasha Khan, au naturale, with a naked male body draped over her shoulders, is as exposed and intimate as the songs on The Haunted Man are. The image is one that projects strength and vulnerability at the same time, suggesting how even if Khan’s weighed down by more than her fair share of baggage, she’s tough enough to bear the burden of what – and whom – she’s done wrong. More than anything else, the photo makes a strong impression that signals there’s a change in tone and approach to Khan’s latest effort, as she tamps down the hippy-dippy elements of her earlier discs and goes for something more immediate and gripping.
Indeed, The Haunted Man is all about Khan letting her guard down, which you can hear in the yearning pitch of her voice and the bleeding-heart themes of her songs. As Khan throws herself into every note and tone, the stirring, slow-building opener “Lilies” sets a dramatic mood from the start, the song steadily gaining momentum and picking up in intensity when she lets loose with the affirming call, “Thank God I’m alive,” with a palpable sense of catharsis as she comes through on the other side. The feeling that Khan is baring her soul is out there for all to hear as her vocals move unabashedly front-and-center on the fragile “All Your Gold”, where her soulful singing is often adorned only by a plump, plucked guitar, and on “Oh Yeah”, as she pushes her voice to the point that it strains past what’s a comfortable range for her.
Just as she opens herself up as a performer throughout The Haunted Man, so too do her lyrics show that Khan isn’t afraid of what comes with reaching out and letting down her defenses to someone else. So it isn’t just the brisk synth-pop moves of “A Wall” that make it one of the record’s most engaging tracks, but more the sympathetic undertone that’s conveyed when Khan implores, “Where you see a wall / I see a door / You’ll get through.” If anything, “Rest Your Head” is even more poignant and open-hearted: as Khan pleads, “You’ve been running too fast / Running for fear / You’ve gotta stop some time soon,” she sounds like she’s someone who speaks from experience, like she’s gone through the same trials and tribulations herself.
What makes Khan’s up-close-and-personal approach feel as compelling as it is has a lot to do with her singular musical vision, which somehow blends such incongruous elements of state-of-the-art electronics, hand-crafted orchestral parts, and eclectic left-field touches so seamlessly that you wouldn’t think they couldn’t go together. The title track is the best case-in-point of how Bat for Lashes’ unlikely aesthetic comes together, as a faintly perceptible twitchy-glitchy beat gives way to marching-band drums and an austere men’s choir before crescendoing to soaring synths and Khan’s high, rising voice. On paper, it may seem like a cacophonous mess, but it says something about Khan’s gifts as a craftswoman that there’s any kind of sum that comes out of these parts, much less one that works so well. In particular, Khan has a real knack for making techno sounds feel organic and alive, amalgamating them with warm instrumentation to the point that you can’t tell how they are any different in nature. On the majestically pastoral “Winter Fields”, Bat for Lashes layers woodwinds, strings, and synths in a way that makes you give up trying to discern what’s what and just give in to its immersive, cascading soundscape. Both “Marilyn” and the closer “Deep Sea Diver” are built on pulsating electro rhythms and oceanic keyboard effects, but there’s a sensual quality to the synthesized music that comes to life thanks to the natural timbre of Khan’s vocals and the lush, aching tone she gives to the arrangements.
Ultimately, that’s what stands out about The Haunted Man, how Khan is able to wring out so much emotion from such clinically meticulous compositions. But that’s because, as the cover art provocatively suggests, Khan puts herself out there and doesn’t shrink from opening herself up to whatever comes her way – music that cuts this close to the bone can only be the product of an individual voice and imagination. So when she sings on the tender, elegiac single “Laura” that the song’s namesake is “more than a superstar,” you could say that Natasha Khan is describing her own career trajectory, realizing her ambitions by finding out who she is as an artist.