When the cover photo of Natasha Khan’s third Bat for Lashes album, The Haunted Man, arrived in July it sparked immediate conversation. Which in turn generated arguments, as to whether people were reacting to it for the right or wrong reasons. The chatter may have been sparked by the visual shift from the dress-up spirituality of Khan’s second album Two Suns, or the And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out + Horse imagery of Khan’s debut Fur and Gold. But the real talking point seems to have been prompted by music news headlines, which promised a NSFW cover. People seemed to be disappointed that Khan isn’t quite naked enough in the Ryan McGinley-taken cover photo. Instead she is covered by frame of a naked man, who she is bearing the full weight of on her shoulders. The black and white image was paired with the release of the similarly naked track “Laura”, a piano ballad draped only in modest orchestration. The pairing seemed to anticipate a laid bare album. But the presence of the man should have been the focal point of discussion, is he the titular Haunted Man? Will this be an album about Khan’s relationships with men, and is the carrying of the man seen as a burden? Or will this just be the stripped down Bat for Lashes album that internet commenters seemed to believe Khan’s grayscale midriff suggested?

On Opener “Lilies” Khan seems to emerge from a darkness. She glides through bassy synth claiming she “was empty as a grave and ghostless was the end”. A desperate cry of “Thank god I’m alive!” breaks her from the despair. The cry might have been called over-saccharine if you couldn’t hear the vulnerable conviction in her voice, but it’s a triumphant moment. The recovery is prompted by the appearance of a man: “Appeared a figure of a man, waving upon the hill”. She returns to her relationship with men on the title track, Khan sings “Yes, your ghosts have got me, too. But it’s me and you”. The man’s problems and ghosts don’t dull her devotion, she carries them with her too just as she bears the weight of the man on the cover. She can and is willing to fix his problems, just as he in turn can be her salvation in “Lilies”.

In “Laura” Khan shows her belief that emotional honesty is needed to reach this kind of relationship. The title character seems to hide behind a public “superstar” facade, and feels indestructible: “When your smile is so wide / and your heels are so high / you can’t cry”. The face Khan’s character puts on results in her being desired by many “Your name is tattooed on every boy’s skin”, but she never reaches the life saving relationship that Khan describes in “Lilies” and “The Haunted Man”, and never will until she sheds the falsity, and demonstrates some raw emotional transparency. Khan provides this rawness for her in a stirring vocal take.

“Laura” is the lone song on The Haunted Man to match the cover image’s vulnerability, and despite being the lead single, it’s not indicative of the whole album. It’s preceded by the slow heavenly synth groove of “Oh Yeah”, which Khan sings with a sensuality that becomes clear once she expresses a desire for somebody to kiss her thighs. The album is as rich sonically as it is emotionally, with the driving percussion of “A Wall” preceding the delicate danceability of “Rest Your Head”, and Guitar strings provide a beat rather than a melody on the chorus of “Horses of the Sun”. An almost unbearably long snare roll accompanies the title track’s male choir, and when Khan finally returns and seizes back control, singing: “still I’m holding out my hand”, the payoff is glorifying.

But it’s Khan’s title and cover theme that give The Haunted Man its core. The balance and shared burden of two differing elements. The sensual electro songs need the raw piano ballads. They need to stand alongside and support one another, in order to make something more beautiful than either of them alone.

4/5

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