In 2006, Natasha Khan, aka Bat For Lashes, released her debut album Fur And Gold. However, it was not until she appeared on the (formerly less bloated and more focused) Culture Show in February 2007 that I paid her much attention. Her voice, the arrangement, her character, the performance and the overall song were all utterly individual and completely captivating; almost instantaneously substantiating the old adage that first impressions really do make the strongest of impressions. Later that same year she and her band appeared at Glastonbury, performing a stunning (televised) set drawn from the Mercury nominated album. As well as showcasing what a unique and formidably talented performer she is, this performance, for me at least, also served to qualify and validate my opinion that Natasha Khan is a truly remarkable artist.
In 2009, Khan released her second album, Two Suns, garnering further critical acclaim, another Mercury Music Prize nomination and a wider audience. Familiar themes of love, relationships, treasure, celestial bodies and dreams continued to run through her song writing but the new material definitely highlighted a more accomplished, assured Khan expressing herself with a justifiable confidence.
The latest album from Bat For Lashes, The Haunted Man, is a another move forward for Khan. It still plays on her strengths and yet again reminds us what a terrific singer-songwriter she is. This time around she has also employed the skills of some prodigious talent (Beck, Rob Ellis, Adrian Utley) as well as trusted producer David Kosten to aid and abet her to make another stunning album.
From the initially stark and minimalist beginnings of the opening track 'Lillies' you can't help but be enchanted by Natasha Khan's smouldering vocals as the strings build and the deep waves of bassy synth rumble below Khan's breathy delivery pouring out each heart felt word... 'thank God I'm alive', she assuredly sings. 'All Your Gold' unpicks the reservations and limitations of a relationship existing on convenience, ease and laziness rather than genuine passion and desire. The trademark percussive nuances that set her aside from many of her contemporaries are, once again, in evidence making this and many of the remaining tracks that little bit more interesting. More brilliantly bespoke beats adorn the soundtrack to the sometimes more awkward but ultimately beguiling composition 'Horses Of The Sun'.
The first three songs have been quality laden tracks that have been masterfully put together with love and care, possibly even agonised over. You get the feeling that Khan is not one to 'settle' for a happy medium but would rather tear it all up and start again if she felt her artistic integrity were being at all compromised. It is not surprising then that the following three tracks push the envelope further still.
With 'Oh Yeah' Khan adopts an '80s electro edge which, from the beginning, feels like a departure from the norm until it eases into more familiar Bat For Lashes territory. Not since early Kate Bush has a song about love and sex been written quite like this, even down to the expressive piano finale.
'Laura', a stand out track on Haunted Man but also one of the best tracks of the year to date, follows on with its sombre piano loop. Everything about this song is utterly brilliant. The delivery is breathtakingly beautiful and the arrangement is outstanding. It not only highlights what a fantastic, albeit at one time reluctant 'shy', singer she is but also what a great lyricist she is... 'You're the train that crashed my heart, you're the glitter in the dark. Ooh Laura you're more than a superstar.' 'Winterfields' completes the trio of excellence. Bat For Lashes references her Sussex homeland in this stirring number that is heralded in by pan pipes and triumphal strings and played out through more deliciously emotive vocals.
Military drum rolls help accessorise the title track as an almost industrial electro underbelly menaces along just below the surface. A male voice choir provides yet more depth to the cinematic tale of war time loss before 'Marilyn' lifts the mood gradually with more percussive perfection accompanying some angelic vocals. The off-set rhythms and multiple layers of 'A Wall' and the synthesised keyboard notes of the livelier, caring and protective, 'Rest Your Head' precede the shimmering subtleties of the final track 'Deep Sea Diver'. Khan's harmonies drift in and out as a whir of bass swims around accentuated by carefully chosen looping key notes and varied percussive beats.
Haunted Man is without doubt Bat For Lashes third brilliant album in a row. Khan's songs are, as ever, emotive, evocative affairs full of character and charm. The arrangements are near flawless and the production assured but not overblown. It's difficult to imagine that Natasha herself questioned where to go and what to do during the period between this and her last album. After having a 'wretched time' and splitting from her then boyfriend, Khan contemplated returning to teaching and took an unpaid gardening job. Thankfully for us she decided there was more of life's 'joy and terror' to celebrate, and oh how superbly she has done that. (Mercury nomination #3?)
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