THE HAUNTED MAN
The best way to hide something is to hide it in plain sight. When something is right out for everyone to see, it’s easily missed or misunderstood in a busy, impersonal world. So, to begin a discussion of the new Bat for Lashes LP, “The Haunted Man,” we have to begin with the lavish LP design and artwork. Wearing a wispy necklace and a naked man draped over her shoulders, we have to ask not only what is Natasha Khan showing us in her nude portrait, but also what is she hiding?
Let’s see, the naked human body can mean a lot: innocence, purity, harmony, strength, honesty, and vulnerability (beyond the obvious sexuality). Nudity can generate strong emotions, energy, and power. It can also symbolize contrasts, such as shame or pride. For some, the nude can cause huge negative reactions, especially in art. And what about the image of a naked woman carrying the exposed burden of an equally naked and vulnerable man, whose face is in shadow, wearing him like a piece of awkward passive clothing? Is this a kind of covering up? Is it a commentary on masculinity? Or is this a way to say that we’re all exposed, burdened with relationships, carrying one another, and unable to truly hide, or be alone, or understand each other? This isn’t LP art intended to titillate and arouse. There’s a message or messages here, hidden in plain sight, planned for effect, reinforcing the music within.
The LP’s title, “The Haunted Man,” is also a bit of puzzle, or perhaps a redirection. A woman carrying the (dead?) weight of a “haunted man” might also imply that the woman is haunted, too, by her burden, by her “good man.” She might even be more haunted than her man. So who is this haunted man? A ghost? Presumably he or his memory is the burden, whoever he might be, and any desire or love or affection or hurt he brought at one time is now down to weight on her back, words in a song, something to carry, awkwardly, as best she can, exposed as she is. The “burden” is the point, the source of the haunting. Many of the 11 songs on this new record speak to human relationships in various forms of conflict. There’s love, but it’s damaged. I naturally start imagining where Khan intends her metaphor to take me. This is intelligent LP design if ever there was some.
Natasha Khan’s biography is well documented: Her famous cousin (Jahangir Khan, world-famous squash player), her ambitious but distracted father who abandoned his family (for his career as an athletic trainer), the blistering racism of Hertfordshire, England, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Khan represents youth in a modern borderless society, given the inheritance of ambition while having to harden herself to bullying peer rejection and abuse in school, growing up mixed race in a classist and unforgiving society, taking factory work after her formal schooling to make money. It’s like her music almost came about as a way to defend herself, or to escape, or both, a way to hide, in plain sight and still be herself. Her creativity provided her with the means to take control of the direction of her life. Each of her records are vehicles for expressing complex emotions, frustrations, and longing. And she wants to talk about it.
“The Haunted Man” is Kahn’s third record. The earlier “Fur and Gold” (2006) and “Two Suns” (2009) both explored some of her personal history and her struggles. Both were critically acclaimed and sold well. Clearly, Khan’s ambition has been a huge asset, that and her natural gifts as a songwriter and musician. She also has something special, a confidence (defiance?) that makes her exciting to watch, which might explain how so much energy and expense was brought to bear on this latest record.
“The Haunted Man” is lavishly recorded in world-class studios all over London, including Abbey Road. Produced by Khan and David Carey, both play a wide range of instruments and synthesizers. The sound is rich and full and bright. But it’s Khan’s haunting voice and poetic lyrics that anchor everything and make this record work. “Laura” is the natural hit, but many others stand out as equally important and memorable, especially “Lilies,” “Winter Fields,” and “Horses of the Sun.” I love hearing the real strings and horns in this record (many of the string compositions were recorded in the hush of Abbey Road Studio, where you can hear the breath of the players). I’m not sure how this sound will translate into live venues without a sizable band touring with Khan. But the record is an early high-water mark for a gifted artist with a lot more records to make.
If there’s eroticism in this record, it’s muted. These are songs filled with ghosts, curses, whispers, darkness, regrets, and coldness. Even the most erotic song, “Oh Yeah,” has a kind of passive, sacrificial vibe about it. Khan’s lyrics need to be thought about and carefully considered. In that way I think her writing is as mysterious as her portrait on the LP cover. What seems obvious on the surface isn’t so obvious when you look deeper. I like mystery. I like it when artists put a lot of thought into how to communicate at multiple levels, inviting reflection and conversation, hiding the obvious. “The Haunted Man” is a turning point for Khan. She’s inviting the world to come inside. But even stripped bare, she’s still keeping a lot to herself, keeping a lot hidden about her complex and compelling experiential art.