BAT FOR LASHES: THE BRIDE (2016)
1) I Do; 2) Joe's Dream; 3) In God's House; 4) Honeymooning Alone; 5) Sunday Love; 6) Never Forgive The Angels; 7) Close Encounters; 8) Widow's Peak; 9) Land's End; 10) If I Knew; 11) I Will Love Again; 12) In Your Bed.
Leave it to Natasha Khan, the illegitimate offspring of a biology-defying union between Joni Mitchell and Stevie Nicks, to put out a concept album about breaking down when most of her singer-songwriter colleagues prefer those about breaking up. Other ladies get their imaginary (or, sometimes, real) boyfriends to dump them and feed on their imaginary (or real) pain for artistry; the fourth album of Bat For Lashes invents a story about the boyfriend actually dying on the way to the (imaginary) wedding, and the girlfriend still seeing herself as betrothed to his spirit.
There's a Tim Burton movie in this somewhere, I guess, or at least a soap opera with supernatural elements, but once we've exhausted all the jokes and fired off all the inevitable (and, might I say, perfectly forgivable) cynical / sarcastic remarks, The Bride demands to be taken seriously — unlike, say, a 100% cybernetic market creation like Lana Del "A Spanish Name Sound So Fuckin' Cool" Rey, Natasha Khan had always had that Stevie Nicks ability of combining romantic artistic clichés with a trust-drawing attitude. Here, she has written herself a personal tragedy and cast herself as the protagonist, and dealing on a yes-or-no basis, I must state, first and foremost, that it works, and everything else is ultimately negligible from that perspective.
Since time seems to have gruesomely slowed down lately, I should probably remind all of us, myself included, that it's been a whoppin' ten years now since her first album (more than the entire recorded career of The Beatles, right?), and while we rarely expect now to see any significant artistic progression in that interim, we might at least expect maturity — meaning that some of the critical remarks about the album being too slow, too moody, too hookless when compared with the sprightlier, boppier singles from Fur And Gold (aye, remember the jumping rabbit-headed bicyclists in ʽWhat's A Girl To Doʼ?), just refuse to take into account the fact that she is, like, 37 years old now; she can certainly allow a little moodiness. And yes, the hooks take a while to sink in, but three or four listens into the record, I have to admit it's a worthy while.
As usual, she relishes in her role of multi-instrumentalist here, with five or six additional musicians enlisted for support but not completely replacing her on any of the instruments — guitars, keyboards, vibraphone, celesta, bass, drums, you name it (Ben Christophers does handle most of the bass parts, though, and then there's like five or six different co-producers to prevent it all from going too sloppy). Since she is not a virtuoso on any of those instruments, clearly, it's all going to be relatively slow and technically simple — but she has worked out a knack for emotionally grappling combinations of sounds, and continues to stay in top vocal form. Electronic and acoustic instruments are combined near-perfectly and used when and where the song's mood / purpose really calls for them (and when it calls for something grander, she does not mind going all the way and commissioning a string orchestra, e. g. ʽClose Encountersʼ); I don't seem to recall being irritated by any of the textures on even one of the songs — and for all of the album's slowness, these textures are remarkably diverse, with guitars, pianos, electronics, strings, bass, etc., dominating in succession, so that, despite the thematic unity, each track has its own face.
And, honestly, much of the record is innocently beautiful, as she manages to find deeply touching vocal moves and pin them on top of those tasteful textures. Even on the brief and somewhat intentionally formulaic ʽI Doʼ (a moment of blissfully unaware pre-wedding happiness), she puts some cool happy-sad melismatic touches on the "I do..." bit — and then, starting with ʽJoe's Dreamʼ, when darkness and dread begin to take over, she becomes so engrossed in her own story that it is hard not to be pulled in (I could swear she gives the strongest "cross my heart and hope to die!" delivery I've ever heard). The falsetto singing on ʽSunday Loveʼ, the album's fastest and most (formally) danceable track, ranks up there with the best of Eighties' synth-pop; ʽNever Forgive The Angelsʼ is first-rate dark folk with haunting vocal harmony arrangements; and ʽLand's Endʼ, to me, is reminiscent of Tim Buckley's serenades to the sirens — when she hits that chorus, with just a tiny hint of dissonance, we have that «uncomfortable mystery feel» generated in an instant, where, you know, you just have to give a bit of an unpredictable nudge to your romantic flow and divert it into a wholly new direction.
I am not saying that there is some sort of innovative, never-before-witnessed artistic twist here. The story, after all, is not that complex — you get betrothed, you get cheated by Death, you go into shock, you slowly get over it, you finally decide to start your life anew — but then, it might be precisely the natural flow of it all that gives The Bride its charm. There are occasional risks that do not pay off — for instance, I don't know why ʽI Will Love Againʼ needed that lengthy «synth hum over two bass notes» coda; there's a difference between a record depending on ambience and being an ambient record — but then, how long has it been since we last heard a record that took risks and capitalized on all of them? Personally, I am already amazed at the fact that an album with such a concept, recorded by a self-consciously «artsy» UK artist in 2016, does not suck — let alone actually combining pretty vocal melodies with tasteful and diverse arrangements — so let us not spend time and energy looking for flaws just because the flashing neon sign «This Record Demands To Be Taken Seriously» has got us all riled up.
Overall, while in terms of individual songs it is hard to single out particularly obvious highlights (something that was fairly easy on her first three records), as an album — a conceptual suite at that — The Bride is certainly her finest, most «mature» and «artistically adequate» statement so far, though I am not sure how many people will be willing to identify and empathize with it. Well, I guess if you're a girl and your fiancé happened to die in a car crash on the way to your wedding, you'll be needing this for some much-needed psychotherapy. Otherwise, you'll just have to imagine yourself as a girl whose fiancé happened to die in a car crash on the way to your wedding — which is... possible, I guess. Not that hard, really. I did give it a try, and ended up with a solid thumbs up on both of my hands.