Natasha Khan, who is also known as Bat for Lashes, returns with her third album after an extended absence. It was worth the wait, writes Nick Levine.
New Bat for Lashes album arrives after lengthy break
Before anyone was allowed to hear it, Natasha Khan made sure her new album was a talking point. The singer-songwriter better known as Bat for Lashes chose to unveil the cover in July - three months ahead of the album's release date. That's early, though not unheard of. In the social media era, fans expect to be teased with a steady feed of "content" from their favourite artists, even enigmatic ones like Khan.
It was the cover itself that made Bat for Lashes such a hot topic. Shot in black and white, it shows the 32-year-old Englishwoman naked, carrying an equally nude and apparently lifeless man on her back. It's a provocative image, but not a sexual one. Khan is looking into the camera firmly but blandly, and her pose is functional, not flirtatious. In fact, the whole thing is deliberately glamour-free. Khan wore no make-up for the shoot, and the picture wasn't retouched. The aim, she explained later, was to create an image that feels "raw" and "real" and harks back to iconic photographs of Patti Smith and PJ Harvey.
Certainly it's a change from the way Khan has presented her music previously. The first Bat for Lashes album, Fur and Gold, arrived looking dark and mysterious. The cover image was taken at night and Khan is shown standing next to a magical-looking horse. Her next album, Two Suns, had an even artier cover. Khan appears with a gold orb in each hand surrounded by candles, with a fantasy desert in the background.
In both cases, the album's cover matched the music inside. When it came out in September 2006, Fur and Gold was hailed as "magical" and "mystical" by smitten critics. Some made favourable comparisons to artists like Kate Bush and Björk; others praised Khan for creating a unique "fairy-tale world". The album became a cult hit in the United Kingdom and was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize, one of the British music industry's top honours.
Two Suns followed in April 2009 and earned Khan another Mercury Prize nomination. If anything, it was a richer work than its predecessor. In its accompanying publicity material, Two Suns was billed as "a record of modern-day fables exploring dualities on a number of levels - two lovers, two planets, two sides of a personality". On several songs, Khan conveyed this "duality" by playing a character called Pearl. Some fans found it a bit pretentious, but it was hard to fault Khan's ambition.
And despite the conceptual baggage, Two Suns came with a very catchy lead single. Named after The Karate Kid hero, Daniel was a dreamy pop ballad with echoes of Fleetwood Mac, and it became her first Top 40 hit.
Buoyed by this success, Two Suns quickly outsold Fur and Gold and Khan got to tour both Europe and North America. The following year, she capped off her purple patch by supporting Coldplay in South America.
But this didn't help when she began album three. Added pressure, coupled with tour fatigue, gave Khan writer's block, so she decided to take a break from music.
She tried returning to her former career as a primary schoolteacher, but the criminal record checks - a legal requirement for teachers in the UK - took too long, so Khan ended up doing unpaid gardening work at an English country house that was once owned by Virginia Woolf's sister.
She also took art classes, tried her hand at pottery and bought a kitten. She called this period "gaining life experience", and poured it into some new songs.
Feeling creatively replenished, she began collaborating with PJ Harvey's producer Rob Ellis and pop maverick Beck, who invited her to record with him at his home studio in California. While she was there, Beck played on a song called Marilyn, which is now a standout track on Khan's new album.
But Khan's record label became impatient. They wanted to guarantee another hit like Daniel by teaming her with professional pop songwriters. Khan reluctantly agreed to a session with Justin Parker, the man behind Lana Del Rey's signature hit Video Games. The result was a new Bat for Lashes song called Laura, which is now the album's lead single.
Laura was unveiled at the same time as the album's nude cover art. If the cover shows a new Bat for Lashes, one that's "raw" and "real", then so does the song. It's a pared-down ballad with tender lyrics about a party girl who gets "left behind". The verses are filled with sad images, but Khan gives comfort on the chorus. "Oh Laura, you're more than a superstar," she sings to her crying friend. It's a gorgeous song - more direct than Bat for Lashes has ever been.
During recent interviews, Khan has discussed being more "direct" on her new album, which she's named The Haunted Man.
Laura is an obvious example but it's not the only one. The opening song Lilies has a wonderful moment when the music fades out and Khan roars: "Thank God I'm alive, thank God I'm alive!" Another track called All Your Gold is a showcase for Khan's storytelling; it's a vivid sketch of a woman who's landed "a good man", but can't shake off her former partner.
Elsewhere, there are songs that combine strong pop hooks with arty music choices, much like Kate Bush or Florence & The Machine.
Marilyn, the track that features Beck, has a strange and glitchy electronic production but a chorus that feels classic. Other tracks, such as A Door, Oh Yeah and Rest Your Head are nearly as catchy.
But it's too easy to brand this album "Bat for Lashes doing pop". Khan continues to experiment with unconventional song structures, and The Haunted Man ends with a six-minute mood piece called Deep Sea Diver. Meanwhile, tracks like Winter Fields and Horses of the Sun feel as cryptic as Laura is direct.
In some ways, The Haunted Man could be viewed as a transitional album. Bat for Lashes is still an artist who rewards close attention, but Khan seems keener to craft more immediate material. It's going to be interesting to see whether this direction continues on her next album.
There's plenty to admire in the meantime. Khan has poured her "life experience" into songs that feel vibrant and optimistic, even when they enter darker territory. And as the album title suggests, The Haunted Man does have some dark moments. In a recent interview with British music magazine Loud And Quiet, Khan revealed that "The Haunted Man" is a composite character who "represents my old ideas about relationships and the men in my life".
Explaining why she named the album after him, Khan said: "It's about releasing these haunted, dysfunctional relationship ideas. The Haunted Man is the thing I want to release the most."
Nick Levine is a freelance music journalist based in London.