Natasha Khan spent several years prepping The Haunted Man, her third album under the name Bat For Lashes. The extra effort shows: While the languorous tempos and sparse orchestration are reminiscent of her 2006 debut, Fur And Gold, everything about the record is meticulous, from sculpted orchestral passages driven by weepy strings and resounding percussion (“Winter Fields”) to brooding piano ballads (“Laura”). This attention to detail extends to Khan’s lyrics, which are far more poised and self-assured, her lyrical character studies acting as short stories. “Marilyn” deals with how love elevates ordinary people to the level of a celebrity, while the protagonist of “Laura” assures the titular starlet that her faded fame doesn’t diminish any affection: “You’re the train that crashed my heart / You’re the glitter in the dark.” The Haunted Man’s relationship-focused songs are just as vivid. The sensual “Oh Yeah” revels in being open to new love, while the conflicted main character of “All Your Gold” is reluctant to break up with a supportive guy—even though she doesn’t reciprocate his love and is haunted by someone from her past.
As on 2009’s Two Suns, however, Khan sounds most vibrant when focusing on electronica. “Lilies” cuts its soaring strings with fuzzy synths; geometric, splotchy rhythms mark the danceable “Rest Your Head”; and “Oh Yeah” is ghostly new wave replete with tinny drum programming and vintage-sounding keyboards. Unlike Two Suns, however, The Haunted Man isn’t going down the obvious electro-indie route. Although Khan is often compared to Tori Amos and Björk, two other major inspirations emerge on The Haunted Man: Kate Bush and PJ Harvey. The former’s ethereal vocals and plush arrangements echo through “Marilyn” and the shimmering gallop “A Wall,” while the latter’s influence is both literal—frequent Harvey collaborator Rob Ellis contributed production—and figurative. The blocky rhythms of “All Your Gold” recall the stark minimalism of Harvey’s early work, as do the tribal drums and Khan’s lower-range vocals on “Horses Of The Sun.”
The downside to The Haunted Man being so meticulous is that its songs often feel detached, as though Khan is performing rather than inhabiting the deeply emotional music. This isn’t a fatal flaw; her moody charisma and piercing vocals ensure the album is still an enjoyable listen. All the same, it’s disappointing that The Haunted Man’s beauty is too often only skin deep.