Bullet Media recently scolded music critics for overusing cliches like “angular,” “reverb-soaked” and “lush.” These cliches, however accurate they might seem, are the bread and butter of unimaginative writers who don’t feel like reaching for higher-hanging fruit. But one cliche on the list ends up causing a problem, at least for anything said about The Haunted Man, Bat For Lashes’ third album. “Achingly beautiful”—this is verboten. Yet how can you talk about The Haunted Man without calling it “achingly beautiful”? This is a real problem, and it necessitates a thesaurus.
Hmm. The overall sound of Natasha Khan’s voice and music…painful grace? Gracefully painful? How about: radiance that makes the listener suffer. Suffer…in a delicate way. Implacably gorgeous? “Gorgeous” is on the cliche list too. Shiver-inducingly sublime? To describe the, ah, ah, aching beauty of Bat For Lashes—the music, mind you, not Natasha Khan herself, even though just as much was made of her nude album cover as her first single—is to make a fool of yourself. It’s like trying to woo someone way out of your league.
Khan’s best track on her last album, Two Suns, was “Peace of Mind,” a folk song that turned into a call-and-response religious revival, and then into a maelstrom of vocals—Khan begging someone, anyone, to give her peace of mind. It was spiritual turmoil that almost resolved into that desperately needed peace. On this album, she gets closer to that resolution, but there’s enough tension, darkness, dreaminess, gloom, and of course, beauties of the aching variety, to stand in the way of an easy ending.
Percussion is on-point. The sneaky snares that bubble up in the middle of “The Haunted Man,” intensifying that male chorus. The timpani boing-boinging in the background of “Winter Fields.” In the hands of less dextrous producers, these kind of drums would sound like a high school pep band gone wrong. They sound great in the context of chilly computerized elements, wonky synths, Khan’s wintry voice. Elsewhere the beats are mellow little crunch of 808s, nothing so obtrusive it ruins the mix.
“You’re a good man/You’re a good man/I keep telling myself to just let go,” she sings on the brittle “All Your Gold,” a track that thumps with texture. Strings and synths follow, then some regretful falsetto: “There was someone I knew before…I’ll let you take all my gold, I’ve hurt you so bad.”
As usual, bald emotion mixes with pretty imagery. “Winter Fields” has the scene laid out: “My hands are cold and the moon sets low.” Songs either take place in bright sunlight or at the stroke of midnight. The skies are “frivolous” in the silky Kate Bush-style aria “Lilies.” “Rest Your Head” is witchy, clairvoyant techno, matching with the message that there’s a “deeper knowing” in the “big old sky.” Remember the “marble movie skies” of “Daniel”? You always know what the sky looks like in a Bat For Lashes song.
It’s not so bad, this endless attention to scenery and nature and weather. I get the feeling Khan pays so much attention to staging because unlike her untethered, endlessly wandering voice, setting the stage can ground each song in a little bit of reality, even if that reality has nothing to do with reality as we know it. By now, Khan understands her voice and her elegant instrumentation evoke the usual cliches. She has tact. When she gives her narrative a concrete setting, she’s giving beauty a purpose. On The Haunted Man, the purpose is to ensnare the listener at all costs.