Take a look at the cover art to “The Haunted Man,” the new album by Natasha Khan, alias Bat for Lashes, who is proving to be the indie music industry’s answer to Adele. You don’t have to scrutinize the album art too long for the word “stripped” to come to mind.
The first thing you notice when listening to the record is what’s missing. Just like Khan’s (lack of) clothes in the artwork, there is no lead single that propels the album, like the song “Daniel” from her 2009 yearning, witch-pop gem “Two Suns.” Does “The Haunted Man” suffer because of it? Probably, but what album would not suffer from the absence of an immediately affecting lead single? The album is most impressive because, even without something as catchy as “Daniel,” it succeeds as a well-balanced album filled with grace and beauty.
All Las Vegas connotations aside, in this case “stripped” does not mean lacking. The most powerful sound on the album is Khan’s voice, a quavering, ghostly croon that needs little accompaniment to sound full of life. Her voice sets a bouncy, expressive tone from the start. “Lilies” opens the album with a muted whole note from a string section, soon followed by a whispered lyric, sounding more a gasp than song as it issues past her lips. “Again tonight I sang a song,” she claims, her voice carrying through the speakers without the heavy reverb that marked her previous efforts. The synths and strings become prettier to decorate the chorus—nothing too extravagant, though, just “lilies scenting the night.”
The bare nature of this album, of course, means that Khan’s songwriting is taking the spotlight for the first time. She does well, using her versatile voice to express both the euphoria (“Thank God I’m alive!”) and the melancholia (“In the suffocating air I resolved to let you go”) coloring her lyrics. But despite feeling laden with emotion, one gets the sense that Khan is not terribly vulnerable here. Although she’s oddly specific in her song titles—“Laura” replaces “Daniel” as this album’s best song—it never seems personal, as if everything she sings is somehow mediated through a veiled dream. Though I think that’s the point: she always wants to keep us guessing.
And to keep listeners guessing is quite a trick in an album with such sparse ornamentation. Everything’s bared, once again, like the cover art, but Khan still remains elusive. She uses this censorship to her advantage—it’s her, after all, holding up the man who hides her naughty bits. It’s important, too, that the choral introduction to “Oh Yeah” obviously consists of a male choir group. Khan flips gender norms on their head with this album, refusing to play the role of the femme fatale or vulnerable damsel and instead owning both her body and her music, which she produced and wrote herself. A fitting soundtrack for the times, then, given New Hampshire’s recently elected all-female delegation to Congress.
I see “The Haunted Man” as a statement of empowerment. Through her determination to be exposed to the world but equal refusal to be completely revealed, Khan crafts an album fraught with complexity, but navigates it with poise.
Khan is no stranger to cultural alienation; she often skipped high school in England because she was made fun of for her Pakistani heritage. So maybe the lack of vulnerability on this album is actually understanding. Used to intense examination due to her race and gender, Khan responds with subtle empowerment and a record that confounds everyone’s expectations. “You’re more than a superstar!” she declares on “Laura.” I’m inclined to believe her.