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Three years ago, Natasha Khan didn’t seem fit for anyone’s constraints. Released in April 2009, her Two Suns album was a dark, multifaceted journey, on which the vocalist battled her alter ego, 'Pearl', a narcissistic femme fatale. On it, pop singer Khan kept things visceral: parts of the recording were unfiltered, her vocal despair bolstered by an equally desperate soundtrack of folk-rock and atmospheric soul. Surely, the results weren’t always palatable, but Khan grew more introspective as the album progressed; by the time ‘The Big Sleep’ came around, Two Suns had descended into something psychedelic. That song, for instance, was a chilling duet with veteran singer Scott Walker, whose shimmering baritone matched Khan’s haunting falsetto and punctuated the album’s bilateral premise. So while the collection was a bit esoteric, it was still an intriguing listen.
Khan — known artistically as Bat for Lashes — maintains a meditative theme on The Haunted Man, except the mood is much brighter here. As it plays, it’s clear she wants to exorcise personal demons — either real or imagined — through upbeat dream pop intended for mass adoration. The album’s symbolic cover art also speaks to new beginnings: in black and white, Khan is completely naked, holding an equally naked man on her slender shoulders. The man looks exasperated; Khan looks reassured. Then there’s ‘Lillies,’ the album’s opening song: after the computerized drums take shape, and the wafting guitar chords grow restless, Khan finally surrenders: "Thank God I’m aliiiive", she wails. It’s a cathartic moment for the London-born artist, whose textured voice carries a hint of personal anguish. From it, you feel she’s seen a lot in her 32 years, and uses those experiences to fortify her art.
'I wanted to challenge the creative patterns I’d set myself in and also to just surprise myself,' Khan says in the release that accompanies The Haunted Man. 'Out of that came some very lovely and some very challenging moments for me'. Unfortunately though, those challenging moments are too few. While Khan continues the meditation of Two Suns, the music remains too close to its sonic centre throughout — bouncy synthesizers and jaunty pop tunes with no real staying power. As a result, The Haunted Man is a decent listen, but a bit too streamlined. While there’s nothing wrong with letting go, it feels like she dropped some of her creative fervor as well. In certain places — namely ‘Oh Yeah,’ ‘Winter Fields,’ and ‘Marilyn’ — Khan appears content as an accessory to the music, instead of the vessel through which it gains life. On those songs, the compositions are the main attraction; Khan’s cadence fades into the ambiance and merely pushes them along.
When she’s at the forefront, however, the results are impressive. On ‘Laura’, a simple piano melody and faint strings set the backdrop for this dynamic ballad, on which Khan cautions a friend against the perils of fast living: "You’ll be famous for longer than them/Your name is tattooed on every boy’s skin." It provides a much-needed pause to the album’s modest proceedings, and showcases Khan’s alluring songwriting ability. ‘Horses of the Sun’, with its galloping percussion and sultry cadence, gives the album its first energetic jolt. ‘Deep Sea Diver’, The Haunted Man’s moody closer, best resembles the Natasha Khan of old; here, she begins with light strings and filtered drums. From there, the music swells against Khan’s vocals, but it never overpowers her like some of the other tracks. Her voice is supposed to be savored, not washed away in a sea of electronics. Unlike some pop starlets, Khan can actually sing, so it’s important that her expression be heard.
Still, there’s an overwhelming normalcy to this record, which is quite surprising for someone who has always seemed so bracingly unconventional. While Khan’s previous work is considered pop, she kept things lively with other melodic influences. Surely, the fusion is schizophrenic on paper — and she wanted it that way — but it worked within her scope. On The Haunted Man, Khan keeps it simple to a fault. This effort is laudable, but she sounds best when pushing the envelope. A lively talent like hers shouldn’t be so concealed.
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