Natasha Kahn makes sparse baroque pop under the moniker Bat For Lashes, though that shouldn’t be news to most. Kahn’s pieces alternatingly hit either side of the line between singer-songwriter and dreamy pop. Though she may be most famous for that one music video from her last LP, the mix of the near-spooky atmosphere of Kahn’s tracks and her traditionally strong vocals make some strong tracks, and her sophomore LP did quite a bit to break her act. The Haunted Man may imply a similar tone of spookiness, but it’s not quite so straightforward. These tracks instead are haunted by loneliness and troubled friendships, and we’re in good hands listening to Kahn present us these stories.
Kahn’s singing is never something compelled. It’s clear to us that she has sat down and composed these pieces, carefully plucking a string here, making her voice echo over there. It isn’t simply her voice that’s traditionally strong. These pieces have a classical sensibility to them from humming woodwinds to choruses like, “the lilies on the hill,” that could be the title of a painting. When something is dark, it’s painted as dark, when something is heavenly, there are clouds and sunbeams and appropriately accompanying lyrics. It’s never so heavy handed as this, but Kahn works in this traditional sense. She spells things out, but only so much as an orchestra might.
The vocals are a major focus of each song, and because of Kahn’s strength of singing, strong lyrics are therefore a necessary piece in building a strong track. Kahn isn’t quite Fiona Apple when it comes to doing this however. This is where the crafting comes across, and though that gives it some wiggle room in stepping away from something more natural, it’s hit and miss depending on how close we’re paying attention. Horses of the Sun, a fairly grandly titled track, has Kahn singing, “I saw the stars spelled out ‘Saved’,” and for the chorus, “We’re more than on the run, busting at the heavens like the horses of the sun.” This grandiose example may be an extreme within Kahn’s spectrum, but it’s lyrics like these that create a push and pull for the listener. The music itself, a big thumping kick drum and tiny flutters of strings, is beautifully embellished by her voice. It turns into something escapist and dreamy, and while that’s charming pop, there’s that ridiculous notion of “horses of the sun” that you wouldn’t normally find outside of a fantasy novel.
Largely though, Kahn’s vocals are near enough to something physical and relatable that this all works. We’re being told stories, and we’re lucky enough to get tracks like Laura out of this composition. Without a doubt, Laura is this album’s centerpiece. Kahn sings above crisp piano keys and tentative woodwinds speaking directly to someone named Laura who we cannot help but assume she is dearly close to. “Your heart broke when the party died,” Kahn builds Laura into a modern day tragic figure. She’s a real woman with real flaws, and Kahn creates this with careful details, “You’ll be famous for longer than them. Your name is tattooed on every boy’s skin.” It’s eerie and heartbreaking, and without doubt it will echo with the listener after it’s through. It’s the perfect amalgam of Kahn’s sparse, calculated arrangements and her careful and crooning voice.
The overarching tone is one of wintry twinkling, and a vaguely African, arrhythmic, almost jazzy vocal performance in defiance of the melody. The title track breaks down into vocal chanting that continues ignorant of the counting snare drum beneath it. All Your Gold takes plucky conga drums, whirring strings, and ticking cymbals, and has Kahn weaving through the beats. A lot of what Kahn does carries a high pitched sentimental curve, but of course, it has to for this all to work. Without a doubt, Kahn carries us along with her in a strong way, and we’re happy to hear the pieces that she has crafted for us. At some point though, it becomes easy to grow less impressed and fatigued by the time we reach tracks like Winter Fields, a name which is on-the-nose in regard to the song’s tonality.
The Haunted Man reaches seriously strong points. Laura is so stark and chilling that one may well play the song twice through before moving on in the album. This crafted act though is one that is hard to elaborate on throughout. Mixed across the album are pieces that don’t quite seem to have Kahn’s full belief in them. If she doesn’t truly have something to tell us, then these pieces can’t work. For the most part, they’re pulled off better than we should expect. Even when singing about “horses of the sun”, we’re happy to buy into it. It’s when things get more somber and we’re unable to grasp why that we have trouble staying with her. Fortunately, tracks like Laura are enough to set The Haunted Man apart.