Expectations can be a crippling obstacle for a musician. Whether by the quality of previous records, word-of-mouth enthusiasm, or just general interest, a new album can buckle under what an audience wanted rather than what it received. Bat For Lashes has been a fantastic act for two full-length records, including 2009’s near-masterpiece Two Suns. Critical acclaim, well-received live shows, and rabid fandom have all boosted the profile of Natasha Khan’s project. Therefore, it holds true that expectations for her third album, The Haunted Man, could not have been higher. It is an excellent record, full of memorable pieces of music that should last long past the end of its 52 minute runtime. However, because it’s not as fantastic as Two Suns, there might be a general sense of disappointment when listening to the new collection, and that’s a shame.
The Haunted Man begins with a trio of songs that set the table; the proverbial introduction, never too exciting but uniformly solid. “Lilies” is a perfect example of a good Bat For Lashes song: a bit melodramatic and slow in its buildup, utilizing Khan’s stunning voice to float on. It flows well into the slightly more uptempo “All Your Gold,” whose bassline stutters along not dissimilarly to Gotye’s megahit snoozer “Somebody I Used To Know.” Where Bat For Lashes succeeds is the sheer bombast of the song’s chorus: exploding from somewhere deep within her, Khan’s voice hits some high peaks that will leave you listener breathless, while the drums manage to pound with just a bit more intensity. “Horses of the Sun” finishes the opening trilogy with a bit of a darker composition, but its general structure is just as enthralling, as a stop in melody blossoms into a flower of a picking guitars, harmonies, and a scattered snare. “You and me were wanted on the run/ Busting out the heavens like the horses of the sun,” sings Khan, and you can feel the freedom.
Then we come to “Oh Yeah” and “Laura,” the two best songs on The Haunted Man for very different reasons. The former begins with the titular exclamation by a chorus of disembodied souls, as an electronic drumbeat marches on. The song meanders through repetitious synths with Khan sounding just as disheveled as continuously strong; it ends with a beautiful piano run outro that wonderfully predicts the next track. “Laura” was the first single released from this new album, and it was a bold and wildly successful move. The piano-led ballad finds Khan at her most inspirtational, speaking to a ‘you’ in dire need of help. It really doesn’t matter who the titular woman is; what matters is her powerful words, reminding her that it does, in fact, get better. In the worst case, remember that others love you enough to let you leave a mark (whether that’s literal or not depends on the person; if that means that ‘your name is tattooed on every boy’s skin,’ then so be it). As the centerpiece of the album, it achieves every high that Bat For Lashes has, perhaps eclipsing all. At worst, it comes close to another proper name song, Two Suns’ brightest gem, “Daniel.”
The second half of the album finds itself a bit long and lost, but there are highlights that show how good Khan has gotten at crafting the exact song needed at the time. The titular track features the chorus from “Oh Yeah,” returned alongside a marching drumline that gives off the eerie vibe intended by the title of the song and album. When Khan returns, it’s a relief, as if safety has returned by virtue of her voice. “Marilyn” references the most famous of that name (Monroe), and it makes the point that everyone has wanted to feel like a superstar at some time; see “Laura” for more on that motif. The serene video that accompanied the song’s release fits the song’s verses, but it’s chorus is like a journey into the sun, the biggest star we hold dear. Perhaps that is what The Haunted Man should be perceived as: a star that is burning brightly but that we perhaps take for granted due to its assured excellence. We wanted a shooting star, and what we got was a stable sun. The problem comes from not thanking it for the warmth.