When Natasha Khan announced her new album, Lost Girls, her fifth as Bat For Lashes, it came with a specific array of inspirations: Los Angeles, her ’80s childhood, and the attendant music and films she grew up on. Some of those — sun-dappled LA days — were new to the Bat For Lashes playbook, while others — moody and atmospheric ’80s music — were less so. But collectively, they make Lost Girls one of Khan’s finest collections in an already acclaimed career. The album conveys all of those influences, and it’s often just as absorbing and evocative as they are.
While mining the classic synth-pop of the ’80s has not been a novel concept for some years at this point, the success rate of that endeavor typically boils down to what an artist can bring to a well-defined tradition. A tradition that can be dicey to explore thanks to its baked-in layers of nostalgia. Many of those great old new-wave singles had a melancholic yearning to them that could make them feel nostalgic from the start. And, generally speaking, for all those artists or writers who remember those days through the filter of early childhood or for those of us born right after, the era engenders a natural nostalgia for a time not quite experienced, the time right before our own that we can only graze with our fingertips.
Thankfully, Lost Girls is one of the success stories, largely due to how much it appears to reflect Khan’s own life in this moment and not just a retreat into a semi-recent past growing ever more distant. Having relocated to LA, Khan has been soaking up landscapes that are pretty radically different from those in her native England, but she also moved there with ambitions to work in film. In fact, she admitted to The Guardian that she didn’t know if she would make another album.
The seed of Lost Girls was actually a script she was working on, inspired by ’80s kids movies and ’80s vampire movies. Around the same time, she met with music supervisor Charles Scott to work on a song for a Stephen King TV adaptation. They wrote “Kids In The Dark” together; the ease of it, and their shared affinity for artists like the Cure and Peter Gabriel, compelled the two to continue collaborating for what would become a full-fledged album. “Kids In The Dark” wound up being not only that album’s lead single and opener, but also a mission statement and highlight, a track that does feel born from visual media for the way it plays as opening credits for the rest of Lost Girls.
Otherwise, she experienced a new life in LA. Unabashedly in love, exploring the desert, touched by how the real place could so effectively conjure the hyperreal sunsets she’d seen in those films as a kid. You can feel all of this in Lost Girls. It’s a neon-lit, cinematic love letter to Los Angeles, to romance itself, to the sounds of our youth — that is, the sounds that shaped us.
Khan has mostly talked about the movies she watched as a kid in London, but there’s another, more recent movie that also looms over Lost Girls. In an interview with The Line Of Best Fit, Khan remarked that she could feel an ’80s revival wave coming on when she watched Drive at the beginning of the decade. She is also self-aware enough about ’80s nostalgia to remark that this wave may have gone too far over time, already hit critical mass. She’s conscious of the fact that you need to bring something new to it, imprint your own perspective upon it.
Drive is almost as perfect an antecedent for Lost Girls as the actual ’80s music that inspired both — an LA story, full of pink and blue synthesizers, a pained sense of romanticism mixed with unsettling noir. The enduring comparison of “the Drive soundtrack sound” gets at the newness that can be present in ’80s-indebted contemporary works like Lost Girls. It is not an aggressively retro-sounding album; it’s not something that sounds like it literally could have come out in 1983. Instead, it’s memories and old sounds, reframed. It’s a reflection of reflections, eventually creating an image removed enough to register as different, evolved — or, at least, flipping things until you see them from a new angle.
Many of the songs on Lost Girls bear out this aesthetic. You can spot plenty of particular touchstones across the album. There is, as always with Bat For Lashes, an echo of Kate Bush’s elusive melodies in tracks like “Kids In The Dark” and “The Hunger.” But there’s also Disintegration-era Cure in the sax-led yet still gothic cascade of the instrumental “Vampires.” There’s the late disco inflections of “Feel For You” — an unapologetic love song and the closest thing to a true dancefloor banger Bat For Lashes has ever recorded. (It’s also the best evidence to support Khan’s claim that this album was intended to be looser, more fun, than the heavier themes of its predecessors.) Relatedly, there are some sugary hooks spread throughout. The chorus of “So Good” almost sounds like early Madonna, and then a later-gen girl group like Bananarama (another artist Khan cited as an influence on the album).
You can pick apart these little elements and try to trace them back, but the end result still comes together into Khan’s idiosyncratic, feverish interpretation of a bygone time, a story of her life today told through the lush mechanisms of a foundational past. There are always slight sonic modulations from one Bat For Lashes album to the next, but this is perhaps the most significant pivot she’s yet undertaken. If you struggled to connect with the sparseness of her 2016 release The Bride, the expansive textures of Lost Girls could easily make for one of the more exhilarating turns in Khan’s career.
The setting of LA is also crucial to the tone of Lost Girls. If you stop and dwell on it, there’s a certain inherent nostalgia to Los Angeles not dissimilar to the ’80s music that defines the album’s DNA — making the two a fairly potent combination. Naturally, there is older architecture and longer pasts in other parts of America. But history often feels as if it’s present and active right in your face while in the West.
A newer part of the country that allows for a greater level of preservation, in a sense. You see vintage cars and mid-century structures mingling freely with the latest and shiniest iterations of both, yet looking no older. Hollywood, the industry Khan moved there for, exists with an express purpose of capturing moments and stories forever, preserved in celluloid but allowed to breathe, encased in amber but still living and moving. That’s what Khan is doing musically across Lost Girls: collapsing time.
There can also be a deep sadness to Los Angeles — the lonely drift of a car between neighborhoods, watching surroundings shift but with no particular place to go. In the couple of interviews Khan has given this year, she’s talked again and again about driving through LA. She speaks of it fondly, imaginatively. But that also gets at another aspect of the album, how its brand of reflection seems custom-built for long, solo, nocturnal drives to nowhere. Lost Girls is the kind of romanticism that revels in, well, getting a bit lost.
Nostalgia gets a bad rap; people call it a cheap emotion. Whether we’re talking about the topical nostalgia of Lost Girls or the nostalgia inextricable from its sonic forebears, there was a bit of danger to what Khan was indulging. But this is the power of going back through the past in this way. In the case of Lost Girls, you can feel an artist, or at least their narrator, also in search of something — wandering to find some deeper or updated truth. The sound of Lost Girls isn’t just exhuming certain synth tones. It’s exhuming a past to try and clarify today, to clarify aging, to clarify how our memories and upbringings shift in and out of focus, eventually rewritten into the kind of filmic adventures we might’ve escaped through when we were actually living through those years.
At every turn, Lost Girls feels directly rooted to its new environs, and paints them with an impressionistic, Technicolor series of sounds. It’s like parsing the haze of memory to find the most vivid ones, letting the more faded counterparts swirl around in the periphery as mere suggestions. “Kids In The Dark,” “Vampires,” and “Jasmine” are made to soundtrack late night drives through the highway arteries of LA, countless headlights piercing the shadows as they circle the faraway glitter of the skyline, never really getting any closer. “Feel For You” and “So Good” suggest a night club that, in 2019, would have to be fictional — filled with smoke, flanked and permeated by neon glow. “Desert Man” and “The Hunger,” meanwhile, take the setting to the desert at sunrise, when it feels as if you can sense something mystical happening, the heat rising like the Earth’s exhale into all the emptiness surrounding you.
Throughout, Khan’s writing is vivid, but not necessarily immediate. Though she’s characterized the album as more pop-minded than her earlier work — partially attributing that to all the glistening synth arpeggios and groove-first compositions aided by Scott’s basslines — most Bat For Lashes music will always feel like a dreamscape. That’s probably never been as appropriate as it is with Lost Girls. At a certain points, some memories become no more tangible than dreams, disparate watercolor recesses of our minds becoming indistinguishable from one another.
Lost Girls, though not without those crisp and sparkling moments, is an album you need to wade into. You need to let its ambience engulf you, and follow along the same as you might when watching a movie’s story unfold. It’s an album of visions — of a city forever colored by decades-old impressions received from across an ocean, of films, of an innocence lost only to be explored for the rest of our lives, of ancient wastelands and endless drives through them. It’s the sound of someone sifting through old detritus from their lives as they work towards creating a new version of themselves. Lost Girls begins and ends in the dark — kids disappearing into the night in search of experience, and then a plea in “Mountains” to share a moment, to have someone sing to you in the dark. It would seem that by the end, Khan isn’t so lost anymore — she’s found something new. And if you let yourself disappear into Lost Girls, let it illuminate your own web of memories, you might find something new as well.
Lost Girls is out 9/6 via AWAL Recordings. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Lower Dens’ moody, dense synth-popper The Competition.
• Post Malone’s as-yet-unheard Hollywood’s Bleeding.
• Iggy Pop’s weathered, jazz-influenced Free.
• Chrissie Hynde’s (also) jazz-influenced covers album Valve Bone Woe.
• Frankie Cosmos’ 21-track, characteristically personal Close It Quietly.
• The Highwomen’s self-titled superstar country team-up.
• Kindness’ both futurist and classicist auteur pop collection Something Like A War.
• Miles Davis’ previously-unreleased Rubberband.
• Tinariwen’s nomadic, collab-tinged Amadjar.
• Adam Green’s Florence Welch-featuring, graphic-novel-accompanied Engine Of Paradise.
• Future Teens’ deeply-emo-titled sophomore outing Breakup Season.
• Oscar Scheller’s long-gestating, guest-heavy HTTP404.
• MUNA’s sophomore effort Saves The World.
• The Messthetics’ Fugazi-descended, mathy, instrumental Anthropocosmic Nest.
• Sis’ gentle, gauzily pretty Gas Station Roses.
• Jax Jones’ debut album ‘SNACKS’.
• Death Cab For Cutie’s typically reflective The Blue EP.
• Andy Partridge and Robyn Hitchcock’s collaborative EP Planet England.
• Squid’s wiry, infectious EP Town Centre.
• Pom Pom Squad’s sophomore EP Ow.