“I could probably fill this entire space just writing about ‘Glass’, the album’s aggressively propulsive opener, and about how its strange mix of elements (chamber pop, prog metal, new age—what?) magically coalesced into some entirely new genre that I wish existed and yet still can’t quite wrap my brain around.” So wrote Mark Pytlik, reviewing Bat For Lashes’ 2009 sophomore, Two Suns.
Well, notch up another victory, Miss Khan, because the opening song on its follow-up is no less deserving of column inches. True, she’s reined in the melting-pot of genres, a little, on “Lilies”, the listener’s gateway drug into the intoxicating world of The Haunted Man. But that just leaves this reviewer wanting to spend more time writing about all the other layers of this strange and beautiful song. There’s the buzzing, gut-churning bass synth which anchors the choruses. There’s Khan’s voice, fragile and expressive and almost cracking under the strain. There’s the gloriously lilting orchestral arrangement, whose efflorescence is all-too brief. And the lyrics, which showcase the greater maturity she has located in describing—away from a fantasy playroom and a grimy future-city—the natural world and her place therein.
But there’s a sparse feel to much of The Haunted Man which I’m not entirely comfortable with. Unlike the glut of reviewers saying her previous material was overstuffed, I was quite a fan of the maximalist style on Two Suns, which saw kitchen sinks doing battle with junkyard electronics. By contrast, The Haunted Man lays out its arrangements in a more linear fashion: emotive piano bit, followed by whizzy electronic bit, followed by marching band bit. It’s a great way to showcase Khan’s talents, but it also makes the album a little stop-start.
All the same, there are a couple of exceptional and more daring compositions here, imbued with emotional heft and deserving great scrutiny. The title track is bewildering, moving softly along a pattering, thrumming beat which then merges with, yes, a marching band, and also a men’s choir, sounding pretty nonplussed about playing the title role. It becomes more triumphant, for a bit, as Khan takes the lead vocal, “standing by my haunted man”. At its close, as it peters out into a burbling sea of electronics, it’s left unclear whether this is a hiatus in thought, or an act of submission to more elemental forces.
The closer, “Deep Sea Diver”, is magnificent: complex and majestic in construction, with a knockout vocal performance from Khan, alternately siren-like and then gasping. After a brief flourish of brass, a twinkling, intertwining piano part is subjected to wandering pulses of bass. The beat is itinerant and stammering, like the one that Radiohead’s “Videotape” coalesces around. At its close, faraway strings drift in and out of electronics and possibly-synthesized woodwind. In its sophistication and ineffable sense of the terminal, it’s not unlike Interpol’s “A Time To Be So Small” (though, musically, the two songs are light-years apart).
And when Khan drops the arrangements totally, in favour of elegant simplicity, we’re left with the two stellar and haunting songs “Laura” and “Marilyn“. Last time round, the icon was a boy (“Daniel“, for the uninitiated); this time, the heroes are women, but they are similarly out of reach and ambiguous. Laura, her “name […] tattooed on every boy’s skin”, is a faded has-been, but Khan’s standing by her, well after the party’s over. “Can we dance upon the tables again?” she asks, though the mournful horns and plaintive piano chords behind her suggest the audience has thinned out somewhat. “Marilyn”, meanwhile, starts off sounding bleary-eyed, a woozy take on Vangelis underpinning Khan’s hushed, furtive voice. There’s a magical, weird bridge with snipped-up vocal samples and twinkly keys; then, a simple repetition of the chorus with some barely-there horns and staccato strings. And then it’s gone, like a mirage disappearing from view. It goes places; it doesn’t outstay its welcome; it’s a gem of an arty pop song that Kate Bush would be proud of.
Other songs, while pretty, seem to be playing for time. “A Wall” and “Horses Of The Sun” fall foul of this: they don’t go anywhere, but just sit around one or two instrumental devices. The atmosphere in the verses on the latter song is subtly troubling and deranged, but I don’t think it has a suitable objective correlative in the lyrical concern. And then the chorus, more uplifting, seems somewhat out-of-place, as if it has wandered in from a different song.
There are almost enough snatches of indisputable brilliance on The Haunted Man to excuse its more aimless moments. Its stylistic deviation from what Khan has created in the past is striking, but it fills this reviewer with a little regret. I didn’t want her to make Three Suns, but if she was going for the jilted country girl aesthetic (and there are definitely textures and lyrics here to remind the listener of Hounds of Love), I would have preferred a fuller-hearted effort. As it stands, the album is admirable and, at least in places, as lovable as Khan’s expressive and almost-tearing voice. Next time, I’m sure she’ll do it.