Natasha Khan is looking more and more like a young Liza Minelli these days, with her short, thick bob and bangs framing her face and accentuating her eyes. In the video for “Laura,” the first single off Bat for Lashes’ third album, The Haunted Man, released this week, Khan is spinning around in a dressing room while a man in drag puts on his makeup, preparing for a show. Khan, who is half-Pakistani and half-British, has never quite presented herself as if she is from the 21st century. Most of her influences are from the previous generation or half-generation: PJ Harvey, David Bowie, Patti Smith. She got the idea for her new album cover, where she stands nude with a man (also nude) thrown over her shoulders, from long-ago covers. “I sort of felt a bit wistful for those album covers like John and Yoko or Patti Smith or something,” she told NME recently, “where bodies were allowed to be really natural and just represent more than just this one-dimension, kind of sexual provocation.”
There’s so much going on in the image, which speaks not to some obsession with the surface of things, or of selling a product, but of sending a message that the music within will build upon. “Women try to rescue or nurture or be strong and carry the burden, you know, all those things are going on,” she told Spinner last month. Ryan McGinley took the cover photo; Khan was inspired by his pictures of nudes with animals hoisted over their shoulders.
It’s those qualities – rescuing, nurturing, being strong – that I’ve admired in Khan since seeing her perform at Joe’s Pub, more jazz club than concert venue, in New York City nearly six years ago. It wasn’t surprising then to find out that Khan had been a preschool teacher before she became a full-time musician. At that show, one of her first U.S. performances on a rainy night in March, Khan at one point called on her devoted converts to howl like wolves. A few in the front seats were wearing feather headpieces, mimicking an accessory Khan could be seen wearing in photos and videos on the Internet.
I remember being slightly embarrassed for the feather-wearers. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it is also the least creative. But I understood it. My unwillingness to wear feathers to a Bat for Lashes show had more to do with an unwillingness to be seen – a preference for spectating. Khan’s artistic persona was so thorough, so visual and specific. You wanted to “climb inside” it (to echo the chorus of her new song “Oh Yeah”: “Here am I / looking for a lover to climb inside.”) Any imaginative deviation from the Bat for Lashes tract just wouldn’t be Bat for Lashes, but a wannabe sect. That’s what fandom (or obsession) is: a desire for total inhabitation of the subject’s world.
In early 2007, costumery was not as large a part of the musician stage presence as it is today. At her shows, Khan would don bright eyeshadow, sparkles, face paint, capes and feathers, and decorate her stage with ghoulish lighting, tapestries and rugs, placing curios on top of the amps and piano. Already in her late 20s, she seemed to have completely figured out what she was doing. She was indubitably a woman. (I was not.) Those early songs, from 2006’s Fur and Gold, were strong and imaginative. There was nothing overly studied about what she was doing. Onstage, she could have been hanging out in her bedroom back in the English countryside – goofing off, experimenting. And yet this was her job, and she was so good at it. Which didn’t seem fair.
Perhaps because Khan wasn’t a ridiculously young person (see: Taylor Swift, Grimes, Laura Marling) at the time her first album came out, her silly ideas (recording certain parts of the song “The Bat’s Mouth” under a duvet, for example) were backed up by intelligent ideas. “I wanted to capture the sound of intimacy and the sound of either children or lovers in a small space,” she explained in an ancient and great interview on YouTube. There is a childlike quality to that entire album, and yet in some ways it’s more satisfying than either of the next releases. The homemade quality suggests honesty: at that time the vocals were louder, the lyrics more intelligible. They seemed more important than anything, possibly because it is harder to create a full atmosphere on a small budget, but quite easy to get through to the listener vocally. She still adopts this technique. On The Haunted Man, songs like “All Your Gold” were demoed as vocals, beat and bass, and they don’t expand much from this in the recorded version.
The video for “All Your Gold”:
Khan is moving away from atmosphere, at least from now, in favor of a front-and-center message. Take the piercing lyrics of “Winter Fields”:
In sub zero I can’t stand still
colors of absence flooding the hill
in wonderment I trip and spill through winter fields
under the stairs taps the metronome
a diver suit that we’ve all outgrown
The subject matter has likely gotten more serious as Khan has moved into her early 30s (she told Pitchfork it was partly inspired by “wanting to have a healthy relationship so you can have a family, and not faffing around as much.”) But the lyrical approach remains the same: rhyming, reminiscences, and metaphors packed closely together. The “diving” metaphor appears numerous times on the album. Khan has always been expert at taking, as Fader wrote in 2009 profile, “the personal and vault[ing] it into the surreal without losing any of its emotional impact.”
In that 2006 interview (above), Khan can be seen seated on a wicker chair that resembles a throne, with plants and other decorative items placed elaborately around the chair. Videos like this only underscored the kind of good witch persona that Khan portrayed in videos and live shows. But now Khan is hoping to shed some of that. “Mysticism has come in as a fashion trend,” she recently told Spin. “I don’t want to perpetuate that anymore.”
To that end, the sounds on The Haunted Man are cleaner and bigger than ever. Khan’s team is more substantial now: the credits on this album list several arrangers (including her bandmate and solo artist Charlotte Hatherley), dozens of instrumentalists, and a couple of programmers and producers (including Khan herself). She may have collaborated with fancy names, including Beck and Dave Sitek of TV On The Radio, in order to get this album out of her head and into the market, but it sounds as if the best work happened, once again, between Khan and her longtime producer David Kosten (who has also worked with acts like Guillemots and Snow Patrol). In fact, none of the Beck collaborations ended up on the album, and Khan has alluded to the fact that they may have been a little too trendy for her liking (they featured “lots of electronics,” she told NME). As usual, Khan knows what she wants. There’s no real “single” to speak of on The Haunted Man, except perhaps “All Your Gold,” and everything without and within reflects the shirking of big-label expectations to produce, to replicate and, most of all, to easily please.