Here’s a weird and indefensible but completely genuine reaction that much-anticipated new albums sometimes provoke: I wish it was better. It’s one thing if a band you like suddenly shits the bed on a new album; God knows, that happens enough. But when someone follows up a record that hit a chord deep within you with an album that’s merely good, or even vaguely great, the reaction doesn’t make as much sense. That’s when you start judging it by the yardstick that only ever existed inside your brain. It’s a shitty reaction because it involves judging the album based on what you wish it was, rather than what it was. But it’s a reaction that’s been happening more and more often lately — one that’s collectively rippled around just about every big, important non-Frank Ocean album of 2012. Well, here it is again: Bat For Lashes’ new The Haunted Man, which comes more than three years after Two Suns, is not Two Suns. It’s still a good album; it’s just not Two Suns.
Two Suns was the moment where Natasha Khan made The Leap — transforming from a promising post-Kate Bush studio-pop auteur with one great video behind her into an utterly worthy target of obsession. The songs on Two Suns were doomy, fragile folk-pop things, psychedelic in the gentlest possible way while still retaining a sort of ritualistic mystery. They were songs that the pagan cult in the Wicker Man remake could’ve sung together around the bonfire if the Wicker Man remake had been any good. Natasha Khan never quite stared into the abyss on that album, but she constantly gave it a sort of flirty side-eye. And then there was “Daniel,” a song that immediately hit like a drug, one that my wife played over and over in the hospital the night we were waiting for my daughter to be born. It’s pretty embarrassing for a music critic to admit this, but sometimes a song will hit some uncanny nerve in your brain. It’ll dance around in your gut for weeks at a time, and you won’t really be able to conjure words to explain why or how it’s happening. That happened with “Daniel,” and that song is a lot to live up to.
Well, there’s no “Daniel” on The Haunted Man — or, if there is, it’s taking its sweet time revealing itself. The album is recognizably the work of the same person, and it’s got a lot of the same strengths working for it. Khan layers sounds expertly, and every second on the album is lush and gooey, music for sighing. On “Marilyn,” she flits between glitchy electronic gizmos and elegiac pillows of strings so assuredly that you almost don’t notice when it’s happening. The title track has a madrigal-style chorus that comes in halfway through and gives the song a bizarre druidic kick. “Rest Your Head” has a tense, springy Chicago house skeleton that shouldn’t work but does. Even the stop-start bassline on “All Your Gold” — so jarringly and distractingly similar to the one on Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” — blends its way into the song’s orchestral forest soon enough. It almost doesn’t bother me anymore, though I’m still pretty puzzled as to what the hell happened there.
But for the most part, the songs underneath all that gorgeous sound-layering don’t grab me the way the ones on Two Suns did. There’s one big exception here: First single “Laura,” where Khan’s voice breaks and shivers while a stark piano and a few delicately arranged woodwinds offer consolation. It’s one of those mysterious things that resists interpretation but seems to hint at huge, hidden feelings, and it sticks with me in a way the other songs on the album don’t. It would’ve been great if Khan came back with another album full of songs that kicked me in the soul the way this one does. But maybe I should just be happy to get another good album out of Khan and shut up about the rest of it.
The Haunted Man is out 10/23 on Capitol.