Natasha Khan Strips Down Sound on Intimate Triumph

Bat For Lashes--The Haunted Man--Parlophone--4 STARS

Courtesy Parlophone

Natasha Khan has always had an eccentric streak. Khan—better known by her stage name Bat for Lashes—spent her last album exploring fables with an alter ego named Pearl, and she always seems to be sporting some kind of striking face paint at public appearances. Khan appears stark naked on the album cover of her most recent album, “The Haunted Man,” and at first glance this feels like yet more gimmickry from the indie songstress. However, upon first listen, it’s clear that she’s actually easing up on the gimmicks. Her new album shows her stripping her atmospheric-yet-accessible sound to its essence and revealing a barer, more intimate identity. The final product is at once her most pop and her most personal, a disc that infects with danceable, if sometimes repetitive rhythms and striking sincerity.

The most infectious beat on the album belongs to “Oh Yeah,” which begins with a chorus of digital voices and then plunges into metronomic hip-hop, punctuated by accordion-like synths. The production is certainly not stripped-down by Bat for Lashes’ old standards, as whirling pianos and twangy synth interjections weave around Khan’s vibrant vocals. But Khan leaves plenty of room for the track to breathe through the hollowed-out drum beat—its repetitive nature is pleasingly minimalistic and almost hypnotic.

Khan isn’t satisfied with an album of arty club bangers, though. “Lilies” opens the album with gliding vocals and dreamy guitar strumming but becomes much more complex as each layer of sound is introduced. It’s here that we see Khan at her most adventurous and eccentric—sometimes the beat is just bass and snare and sometimes it disappears completely. When the chorus bursts out of thin air, the beat becomes a powerhouse, bolstered by a fat, buzzing bass. It’s a headphone user’s paradise, and the schizophrenic, textural production evokes Björk. But Khan is not merely regurgitating influences; the personal themes on “The Haunted Man” make the music uniquely her own.

“Laura,” the album’s first single, is also its strongest track—it’s an exercise in tasteful arrangement through which Khan pours her own feelings. Somber piano chords are joined by Khan’s delicate crooning: “You say that they’ve all left you behind / Your heart broke when the party died.” When warm brass is eased into the mix, the mood turns inspirational, as Khan reassures the titular Laura that she’s “more than a superstar.” The song was written for a real friend of Khan’s, and the honesty shows through. Even when the music builds triumphantly, it’s a fragile triumph—Khan wisely eschews what could have become symphonic bombast by accenting her climax with a modest trumpet and cello. On “Laura,” it’s clear throughout that Khan is simply speaking to a friend in need.

Because so much of the music crackles with emotional energy, the few one-track-minded dance numbers feel comparatively shallow. “A Wall” is undoubtedly danceable with its repetitive, bouncy groove, but it doesn’t offer much that the rest of the album lacks save some slightly unnerving lyrics. Likewise, “Rest Your Head” is a fun number with a catchy synthesizer hook, but it just feels flat after the emotional dynamo that is the first half. There’s not a bad track on the album, but the simply good songs just sound like filler by comparison.

“You thought I wouldn’t know your face,” sings Khan to the titular “Deep Sea Diver” of the album’s closer. On “The Haunted Man,” it’s Khan herself who looks different. While she’s still enthusiastically experimenting with textures, beats, and moods, there’s less flash and more personality. This may be the third Bat for Lashes release, but it might as well be the end of that moniker; Natasha Khan seems to no longer need a stage name to hide behind. Ultimately, though, it’s all about the music, and whatever she goes by, she certainly has that covered.