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The Haunted Man
Scarily good third album from thinking person’s Florence Welch...
Olaf Tyaransen, 04 Oct 2012
Illustration © David Keane, Hot Press
The eye-catching front cover of Bat For Lashes’ third album, The Haunted Man, features a black-and-white portrait of a fully unclothed Natasha Khan with an equally naked male draped over her shoulders (possibly Prince Harry). Taken by American photographer Ryan McGinley, it’s very artfully done, but also immediately reminiscent of PJ Harvey’s topless Rid Of Me cover from way back in 1993.
This was undoubtedly the intention. As Khan herself recently explained to NME, “I really wanted to strip things back in honour of women like Patti Smith; just these raw, honest women. I had no make-up on, it’s just me and my haunted man.”
Although Kahn could scarcely be classed as an ‘angry young woman’, Smith and Harvey are just two of the iconoclastic female musical artists to whom the rising English star has regularly been compared since the 2006 release of her dreamy, reverb-drenched, Mercury-nominated debut Fur & Gold. Her more electronic second effort, 2009’s futuristic Two Suns, earned her another Mercury-nomination, along with further comparisons to the likes of Björk, Stevie Nicks and, most especially, Kate Bush. Sadly, she didn’t get second time lucky Mercury-wise, but the lead single ‘Daniel’ deservedly won the Ivor Novello award for Best Contemporary Song.
Commercial success has its downsides. Having gone on the road for a lot longer than she was used to, and ended a long-distance relationship with her beau along the way, Khan was reportedly burnt out by Two Suns – totally spent creatively, emotionally and physically by the time she reached the end of its promotional trail. On the advice of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke (with whom she had toured for a while), she took some time out and retreated home to recharge her batteries and nurture her musical muse.
“I felt quite drained and tired, creatively,” she told an interviewer, “so I decided to get back to this really domesticated existence in my flat in Brighton. I felt like I needed to be immersed in nature and have a quiet, reflective time.”
Temporarily removing her musician’s hat, she spent her days working on dance films and scripts, doing children’s book illustrations, undertaking a spell of volunteer gardening at Charleston House in East Sussex (the Bloomsbury Group’s country retreat), going back to Brighton University for some informal tutorials with her old art teacher and reading recommended books. One of these, The Enchantment Of Art, provided a small epiphany and planted a seed of change in her approach to what was to become The Haunted Man.
Certainly there’s much that’s enchanting on her third long-player, which she co-produced with David Kosten (who worked on the two previous albums) and Dan Carey, and mostly recorded in their respective London studios. Seeking some outside advice, Khan also made pilgrimages to producers Dave Sitek in Los Angeles and Rob Ellis in Italy. Further contributors include guitarist and producer Adrian Utley and venerable arrangers John Metcalfe and Sally Herbert, who both worked on orchestrations for a recording session at Abbey Road.
She might have stripped off her clothes, but she hasn’t stripped down her sound. As ever, autoharp and piano feature heavily, alongside strings, horns and synths, but the studio drum machines didn’t gather dust either. Featuring militaristic beats, the Kate Bush-inspired title track is a real standout. As poignant and ghostly-sounding as its name suggests, this song of loss and regret was apparently inspired by David Lean’s movie Ryan’s Daughter (set against the background of the 1916 Rising).
She sounds her most naked and vulnerable on first cut, ‘Laura’, a brittle and heartfelt piano ballad, delicately carried by sombre horns and strings, which nods respectfully in the late Karen Carpenter’s direction. An attempt to cure a friend of adolescent angst, her fragile vocal is cracked and broken at the beginning, but blossoms beautifully for the chorus: “You’re the glitter in the dark/ Oooh Laura, you’re more than a superstar/ You’ll be famous for longer than them/ Your name is tattooed on every boy’s skin.” In a first for Khan, the song was co-written with Justin Parker, who also worked with Lana Del Rey on her chart-topping ‘Video Games’.
While it blends perfectly into the overall mix, ‘Laura’ isn’t especially representative of the album as a whole (most of the other tracks sound more autobiographical). From the strings on gorgeously optimistic opener ‘Lillies’ (with its joyously affirmative cry of “thank God I’m alive!”) through the tribal beats of ‘Horses Of The Sun’ to the male backing choir featured on the hip hop-heavy ‘Oh Yeah’, The Haunted Man is a sensual sonic treat packed full of surprises – including an appearance by Beck on second single ‘Marilyn’.
Dreamlike, otherworldly and evocative, but with a lot more light than dark, The Haunted Man is a scarily good album.