When people think of pop music these days, what typically comes to mind are the occasionally stale radio offerings of today’s Top 40. It’s important to remember, though, just how wide the genre is, and that there are so many players in the industry pushing boundaries. Though there are perhaps more people gravitating to the center of the pop universe, Natasha Khan’s (who operates under the name Bat For Lashes) latest release, The Bride, seems about as far removed from typical pop as it gets. Meant to function as a soundtrack for a movie she wishes to make in the future, the album follows a character who, on her wedding day, discovers that her husband to be died on his way to the ceremony. While pop music is no stranger to personas and albums about ending relationships, Khan’s key changes in narration and her intentions for the music’s use place the album in largely untraversed territories.
While music in movies often occupies a supporting role, Khan has refused to hold her music back. The album tells a story all on its own, tackling the end of a relationship similarly to Bjork’s Vulnicura, though the albums differ in why the relationships in question ended. The chronology of Vulnicura allows the heavy and sometimes conflicting emotions to be easily trackable as they’re relegated into well-defined stages of recovery. Being able to follow the evolution of these emotions was a major boon for the album’s critical success. Khan employs a similar strategy in her music, taking the listener through stages of grief and recovery while also successfully highlighting the overlap between the two.
Album opener “I Do” is perhaps the clearest song emotionally on the album, reveling in the pure joy of love. The feeling doesn’t last long though because by the third song, “In God’s House”, we learn that the character’s fiancé Joe has passed away as she awaited him in the church. The musical sparseness of the next song “Honeymooning Alone” accents the emptiness the character must feel in the wake of the tragedy. “Never Forgive the Angels” is an interesting take on the “Why, God?” phenomenon that occurs after something terrible happens, but instead she blames the angels. The song is haunted by harsh imagery as she imagines Joe riding beside her forever, never quite being able to cross over to her. Though the primary reason to blame the angels seems to be that they didn’t watch out for Joe, what’s even more devastating is that it potentially seems like she might be resentful that the angels didn’t take her with him.
The album doesn’t spend too much time wallowing in pure despair, though. Much of the second half is devoted to making peace with what happened and accepting it as reality. Her more spiritual numbers choose not to focus on death as some kind of end but as a mere change, explaining in “Close Encounters” that “on the other side he’s all around.” She talks of going to the other side in the song, not in a suicidal sense but instead as a medium for communication, as a place she can sense her lover’s presence. Unfortunately, while the portion of the album surrounding “Close Encounters” reveals a ton of emotional information, the music doesn’t do it justice. That “The Bride” is a slow-burner is a given, but in this section, the music is just slow. While the sparseness in “Honeymooning Alone” complements the themes present in the song, it doesn’t do the repetitious melody any favors. “Close Encounters”, on the other hand drags, on and on in the slowest fashion with a mostly unremarkable melody and stagnant string arrangement. The absence of any percussive elements contribute even further to the song’s mediocrity. “Widow’s Peak”, though containing some beautifully spoken and written poetry, features lifeless music that serves no function to the piece. Luckily, the music that follows more than makes up for this lull.
The lush “If I Knew” and celestial “I Will Love Again” take acceptance to a new level as the character admits respectively that she wouldn’t change anything even now and that eventually she’ll make room in her heart for another. The latter is a musical highlight and perhaps the most confident sounding work on the album with its ever-present base and softly triumphant vocal. It seems to be the most declarative moment on the album and in turn, one of the most powerful. The following song “In Your Bed” doesn’t make it clear if the character immediately follows through with her intentions to love again as the carefully crafted poetry atop the gorgeous music seems intentionally ambiguous. She speaks of wanting to lay in bed with a lover, but whether she’s speaking to someone new or to Joe again, we might never know. The relaxed nature of the music though seems to imply the speaker has, at the very least, made peace with her situation. It’s not a quick fix to the pain in her heart, but it is part of the essential journey, one that may be fabricated but feels all too real nonetheless thanks to Khan’s riveting and insightful storytelling.