The stark monochrome cover image of Natasha Kahn, aka Bat For Lashes, naked with her dreary male pray draped over her shoulder is something of a paradox. The artwork is both a fitting metaphor for Natasha’s sonic transformation and a false image of the singer’s assertiveness.
Sonically, The Haunted Man, like its artwork, strips Natasha of all her hippy dippy trappings. There is no glittering make up, no meditative poses, and no barrages of spritely imagery distracting you from Natasha and her prey. The tracks are minimal by Bat For Lashes standards. There are some sophisticated arrangements, and at times her warped concoctions recall Sufjan Stevens (“Oh Yeah”), Peter Gabriel/Kate Bush (“Winter Fields”), and St. Vincent (“The Haunted Man”). Still, whatever the mood of the track, the instrumentation is pointed and hard. The guitars clang more than shimmer, and the drums are routinely pounded (“Horses Of The Sun”). It would all be a bit severe, if Natasha wasn’t in such a pliable mood. She sounds bold rather than whimsical, resulting in some of her strongest pop songs of her career. “All Your Gold” is delicately layered but powerfully immediate, “Marilyn” ruminates deep into the surrounding silence, and “Laura” is a ballad of the highest order.
Stripped and strong, The Haunted Man’s sound may reflect that curious little album cover, but Natasha herself is found wanting. She just isn’t this powerful female teeming with identity and prowess. When she has suitably devastating subject matter (“Laura”) or a blistering pop arrangement (“All Your Gold”) her lack of a truly individual character is irrelevant, but too often Natasha wears the clothes of others. PJ Harvey, Kate Bush, St. Vincent, they all loom large over The Haunted Man. Natasha, herself, remains a puzzle; a capable singer who routinely pens sublime pop music while striking a frustratingly anonymous figure.
Luckily it’s the primal punch of the arrangements and the well constructed melodies that win the day. Natasha might not exert a true sense of self, but The Haunted Man does everything else too well to deny. It’s a niggling frustration, but it might well be a fleeting one. Bat For Lashes is an ongoing concern, and if she keeps up this pace (and this standard) her Let England Shake or Strange Mercy could be waiting around the very next corner. David Hayter