After the necessarily dark, grand and stunning strains of 2009’s Two Suns, the next question for Natasha Khan (aka Bat For Lashes) of where to go next appears to have been difficult to answer. Two Suns was a magical record, effortlessly creative with expansive pop, piano balladry and experimentation. Three years later, The Haunted Man is the rather stark reaction. As the cover suggests, it’s stripped down and honest with little to hide. Trouble is that after repeated listens, that’s not necessarily a great thing.
In picking apart her approach to songwriting and keeping the instrumentation light, Khan has made sure her work is even more penetrable than before, with only light rhythms and her soulful, honest vocals offering to hold the attention. The good news is that this approach works very well for her singing; this is her strongest vocal performance to date. Marilyn’s soaring chorus features a command of the high register that Khan had only been able to casually hint at previously and the piano-led Laura demonstrates the other end of the scale, mostly offering proof of her ability to quietly seduce and overpower emotionally. There are also enough angular yet enjoyable beats sprinkled throughout to save things from getting too stale, with the welcome bounce of A Wall standing out.
Musically is where this approach stumbles, however. Extracting the grandiose edge has forced Khan into a position where choirs, loud rhythms and melodrama aren’t instantly welcome, so The Haunted Man often relies more on its subliminal melodic edge as a means of attraction. Simply put, it doesn’t always work. All Your Gold is wonderfully playful and catchy, featuring a sparse electro-accompaniment along with some gorgeous string work. The aforementioned Laura is slow, moody and beautiful, with barely any touches to distract from the vocals and piano. But Horses of the Sun asks far too much of Khan’s voice, with a middling, slightly angular drum-machine beat offering driving proceedings without giving much back. This can be lumped in with at least four others that offer little reason to return, which means the gems of the record are in short supply. For a songwriter of Khan’s invention and experimentation, this is a shame as opposed to a disaster, but it’s still impossible to ignore.
After the grand statement Khan made with Two Suns, offering her music more space must have felt logical. The Haunted Man is by no means a weak record because it doesn’t exist in the same dramatic space as its predecessors. Despite its lack of power, it’s a ballsy record in that it even exists, and it was a risk worth taking for Khan’s career. But it is a weaker record, and doesn’t hold the attention or display quite the same level of allure as well as Khan’s previous efforts.