BAT FOR LASHES: THE HAUNTED MAN (2012)
1) Lilies; 2) All Your Gold; 3) Horses Of The Sun; 4) Oh Yeah; 5) Laura; 6) Winter Fields; 7) The Haunted Man; 8) Marilyn; 9) A Wall; 10) Rest Your Head; 11) Deep Sea Diver.
Well, it looks like nobody was interested in taking my advice and steering The Enchanted Lady of Pakistan in the direction of lighter entertainment. Or, more likely, this is simply an impossible task: The Lady has a will of steel, tempered by everything from severe childhood experiences to a questionable, but firm taste in literature and other forms of art. The Haunted Man — so haunted, in fact, that all he can do now is rest, naked and lifeless, on Mother Natasha's bare shoulders — is the generally predictable third volume of Bat For Lashes' venture into the world of sensual romantic darkness, usually inhabited by pseudo-intellectuals and con people, but sometimes visited by more demanding visitors as well (by mistake or out of curiosity).
On that global level, nothing has changed. Natasha Khan has not improved either as a musician or as a lyricist, and her cherished «artistic vision» has not been expanded from the usual Freudian muck. There may be a slightly deeper sexual subtext this time — as she grows older, she gets less shy about letting it out in the open, starting with the provocative album sleeve and ending with tracks like ʽOh Yeahʼ and ʽDeep Sea Diverʼ, particularly the former which really sounds like an invitation to try a new style of lovemaking if you are bored with the traditional stuff. But it is still only part of the story — in her witchy world, sexuality plays an important part, yet you do not reduce everything to sexuality. Or, at least, much of the time you give sexuality another name.
On the local level, however, I was surprised: The Haunted Man is definitely a huge improvement over Two Suns in terms of individual song quality — in fact, the lady had my attention hooked for almost the entire first half of the record, letting it drop somewhere around ʽWinter Fieldsʼ but still recapturing it with ʽMarilynʼ and, for a brief while, with ʽDeep Sea Diverʼ. Basically, it all seems like a matter of being able, or unable, to exploit her strongest advantages — a good sense of vocal melody, particularly contrastive vocal melodies, and the skill of compensating for the technically weak instrumentation with an assortment of «musical knick-knacks». Of course, I have no idea how many of the «knick-knacks» Natasha happens to be personally responsible for (there is like a million people altogether working on this record), but, in the end, this is a «Bat For Lashes» album, not a «Natasha Khan» one — and who could properly define «Bat For Lashes» and segregate it into individual components?
The voice power is probably best illustrated with ʽLauraʼ, a sparsely arranged piano-and-subtle-strings ballad that she co-wrote with Justin Parker — the guy who, not coincidentally, was also responsible for introducing Lana Del Rey's ʽVideo Gamesʼ to the world in 2011, and the two songs do have a lot in common (sad piano ballads delivered by femme-fatales with mystical auras and lotsa makeup). But where, as far as my troubled ears are concerned, ʽVideo Gamesʼ remains a puffed-up nothing like 99% representatives of the genre, ʽLauraʼ is a much better song — it rises, it falls, it starts soft, it gets tense, in short, it lives and breathes. It isn't much of an original composition, with verses sounding as if they were appropriated from an old Dylan folk number and the chorus quoting from ʽRemember (Walking In The Sand)ʼ (well, I suppose The Shangri-Las should be quite a natural influence for Natasha), but even the stock phrases are screwed together in a lively way — normally, I'd just walk away from something like this in bored disgust, but here, I thought I felt a real spark. (Oh, and naturally, the video for ʽLauraʼ has 1 million views on YouTube where the one for ʽVideo Gamesʼ has 30 million — but I suppose it all has to do with the seductive wonders of lip enhancement surgery).
Most of the other songs have «deeper» sounds, unfortunately, way too often marred by an unhealthy fascination with drum machines (does she have a Dead Can Dance fetish or what?), but salvaged through great vocal parts — ʽLiliesʼ is a fine example, if you manage to disregard the lyrics (about a magical milkman or something). But she is at her very best here when she opens the tap on the «darkness» barrel — ʽAll Your Goldʼ and ʽHorses Of The Sunʼ (never mind the titles, please!) rank with her very best stuff on the early albums, or maybe even go beyond that level. ʽAll Your Goldʼ, in particular, is a nifty synthesis of a Caribbean bassline, a traditional pop vocal melody, dream-folk harps and chimes, and some grumpy treated guitar chords that seem lifted from some faraway hard rock classic. ʽHorsesʼ is also moderately haunting, mostly thanks to the great idea of singing the verse melody an octave lower than her usual range, which then contrasts with the happy-cloudy psycho-pop chorus in a memorable way.
The «tribal», «voodooistic» aspects of the album that involve round-the-fire male choruses offering religious support (ʽOh Yeahʼ; the title track) do not work nearly as well, because Ms. Khan is always at her best when she is alone — it works much better when all these «spirits dancing» remain in her (and your) imagination rather than try and make an effort at materializing in the flesh. But it does not necessarily mean that she always sucks when going for a louder, fuller sound — ʽMarilynʼ and ʽDeep Sea Diverʼ both feature quite beautiful arrangements, even if they are a bit too derivative of all that mid-to-late Eighties New Age scene. Not quite so with ʽA Wallʼ, which was, for some reason, «blessed» with a danceable percussion groove even though the melody itself is anything but catchy.
Cutting this short, The Haunted Man returns me back on the fence about Bat For Lashes, where I'd already thought that Two Suns would forever land me on the negatively charged side of it. I mean, ever since Kate Bush invented this genre, for every person that used it with the properly input mix of intelligence and creativity, there have been ten whose fascination never went beyond silly clichés. With this lady, three albums into her career, it is still hard to tell if she is just a mildly talented phoney, or a real prodigy that is too hampered by childhood attractions and genre conventions to let her gift shine properly. But there definitely is artistic merit in The Haunted Man, although it sure enough ain't in the sleeve photo. Thumbs up, with caution and patience.
Check "The Haunted Man" (MP3) on Amazon