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There was a lovely, vulnerable moment in a recent Observer interview with Natasha Khan, better known as London-born artist Bat For Lashes. It wasn’t the stuff about her notebook filled with sketches of shadowy figures, or the detailing of the creative block that followed her two previous albums – 2006’s Mercury Prize nominated ‘Fur And Gold’ and 2009’s ‘Two Suns’, which spawned two big hits: the Ivor Novella award winning Daniel and Pearl’s Dream. It was right at the end, when Khan responded to a somewhat bewildering comment about whether she had been “spurred on” by the “breakthroughs of Adele and Florence Welch, or the continued excellence of Björk, PJ Harvey and Joanna Newsom.” Now, I love Adele, but what her music has in common with Khan’s is somewhat of a head-scratcher. Surely the interviewer wasn’t making a comparison based on, whisper it, their gender? Khan, displaying more dignity than many would’ve mustered, responded with a revealing gentleness:
“‘You know, when you’re in a normal family and you feel like a black sheep? But then you’ve got a mad auntie who lives in France or somewhere and she sends you weird things and you think, ‘Oh, it’s all right. I’m not alone.’ Khan giggles, “It’s a bit like that. When Björk comes out with some mad new album, I think, ‘That’s good.’ It’s reassuring.’”
Khan’s interpretation of her forebear’s creative exploration as validation is touching – we all need, seek out, signs – but it’s her linking of music and madness that is most interesting. Madness in musical terms – often, frustratingly, characterised as kookiness in regard to female artists – is associated with an embracing of the darkest enclaves of the imagination, but it’s also about a disregard for directness. While there’s a very specific skill to big, bold songs that spell out their intention in capital letters, the creation of a rich, evocative world that asks more questions than it answers yet still leaves a thousand doors open for the attentive listener calls for an altogether different level of storytelling.
A deeply gifted storyteller, Khan has already proven she’s up there with the greats in her ability to beckon the listener close but on ‘The Haunted Man’ she reaches new levels of world-building. While it could be argued that ‘Two Suns’ essentially orbited its two big hits, ‘The Haunted Man’ feels fuller, fleshier, freer. You can hear Khan’s wild abandon and the freedom with which she paints the pictures in her head, realising the sketches in her notepad.
While she led with Laura, the portrait with the cleanest lines, it’s the tracks that are more like impressionistic scenes that hold a deeper power. Opener Lilies contains some of her most perfumed lyrics: notes and noticings that awake the senses yet hold close their secrets, leaving room for the listener’s too. The brooding Oh Yeah is sparse yet ballsy and Winter Fields, with its phrases of big stirring instrumentation, is a straight-up heart-clasper. It’s forthcoming single All Your Gold that’s the one with its eyes most keenly fixed on Daniel heights of emotion though: a sophisticated chime-led melody that for all its delicateness is the catchiness track on the record.
Throughout ‘The Haunted Man’, in fact, the production is current – much clicking and chiming, lots of room to breathe – without once feeling forced. It feels like Khan has found a space she feels most at home in – and you can hear that joyful thrill bubbling up in Marilyn as child-like calls of “yoo-hoo”. Pushing through her creative block has taken Khan to a place that’s richer yet more open than any other she’s uncovered before, and on ‘The Haunted Man’ she’s revels in that while not once leaving the listener outside in the cold: the door is always open, if you are. Or as she so beautifully puts it on closer Deep Sea Diver, “Baby let your hair down / It’s time to get enchanted”.