[7 April 2009]
Identity crises are not uncommon in the music world. David Bowie may be the first icon who made musical alter egos cool. Along the way, there have been questionable repackagings (anyone remember Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines?) and even questionable mental states; Jane Siberry recently ditched her belongings, renamed herself Issa and rarely plays any Siberry songs. But the artists who have taken on second personalities were all established enough to be well-known as themselves, thereby enhancing the contrast. For an artist who’s only released one album, taking on a new persona is decidedly ambitious.
Natasha Khan, better known as Bat for Lashes, does just that on Two Suns. Fortunately, Khan’s ethereal voice and fantasy novel songs on Fur and Gold solidly established what has already become Khan’s trademark sound. Having set herself apart more than most young musicians, Khan has greater room to play dress-up. She is blessed and cursed by her distinctiveness, which may be, in part, why she chose to write the songs on Two Suns as a girl named Pearl. Khan created Pearl to be her opposite, describing her as a destructive, self-absorbed blonde; the antithetic, yet inextricable shadow of Khan herself. This duality is echoed in the album’s title and the song “Two Planets”.
Khan further achieves accidental duality by making the album’s songs hit or miss. For a musician, lyricist, and vocalist as eclectic as Khan, a certain unevenness is to be expected. However, she can do much better than some of the songs, which are weakened by synths, sophomoric lyrics, and sonic clutter.
“Siren Song” is the album’s highlight, a perfect union of form and content. Khan draws listeners in, genitals first, into the water that is also Pearl’s shadowy inner world. When Khan promises to “bathe you when you get sore,” her hyrbid of maternal instinct and sexuality escalate the seduction. (No wonder Thom Yorke referred to Khan as a “sexual ghost.”) “Peace of Mind” offers a surprisingly effective pairing of cowbell and gospel choir, which fades as Khan becomes a Sekhmet-esque narrator fiercely articulating past battles. “Traveling Woman” is a strong, melodic ballad that shows a world-weary and world-wise Pearl. The album’s closer, “The Big Sleep”, is powerfully eerie, containing lyrics and sounds that amount to an ending as ambiguously haunting as Ghost World‘s. On this song, Khan transcends herself and fully becomes Pearl just in time to whisper “bye, bye, my dears.” Pearl is going into the titular big sleep, but whether she self-destructs, self-transcends, or simply naps is a question left in the aether.
While the weaker songs are definitely not throwaways, they miss the mark in more than one way. Unfortunately, the album’s first single, “Daniel”, is one of these. The synth beat throughout sounds dated, as do the lyrics, whose primordial imagery about love’s transcendent powers are a little too ‘80s girl-group. “When I first saw you, I knew you had a flame in your heart,” goes one line, as the song eventually leads up to a promise to “run away to a place that’s ours.” “Pearl’s Dream” features the same dated synth (and even a fade-out!), another reference to fire in a heart, and vocal effects that clutter a narrative which seems compelling but is hard to follow.
It’s easy to set expectations very high for Two Suns, given its predecessor’s excellence. But are those expectations unrealistic? An album about dualities has many possibilities, and even more so given Khan’s imagination and talent. Rather than singing about how there can be two of something, as she does in “Two Planets”, why not extend the concept of duality to the music and write songs that answer, defy, invert, and ultimately reaffirm one another?
It’s doubtful that Khan will ever make anything unlistenably bad. The question—and the pressure—is how she can best evolve now, given the level of experimentation she’s done from the start. Perhaps this will lead to a string of albums that are all good, but all sound alike. Perhaps the pressure will catapult Khan onto a new plane of invention and innovation. Or perhaps there are other selves curled up with Pearl deep inside her.