Flaunting one’s flesh can seem like a lazy way of getting a few column inches by popping the odd pair of pervy eyeballs out of their sockets. For someone whose last album occasionally ponged of the Emperor’s New Clothes, though, the image of a starkers Natasha Khan on the cover of ‘The Haunted Man’ feels pertinent. In ‘Two Suns’ she masqueraded as a swashbuckling soul who could spin you a helluva yarn about swords’n’sorcery fancy. But, once all the showy things had lost their sparkle, there wasn’t much left other than wafty posturing. All this shedding of clothes, then, is no risqué crack at setting tongues-a-wagging. It’s a (near) full-frontal mission statement that the now 32-year-old Bat For Lashes is bauble-free and (fingers crossed) back-to-basics.
Except, of course, that Khan doesn’t really do back-to-basics or spit and sawdust simplicity. Perish the thought. And so while ‘The Haunted Man’ deals in less trinkets than its predecessor, it’s not scant in splendour. Instead, for large swathes, it’s like being plunged into a fairytale soundtracked by skin-prickling electro and populated by downtrodden sods hunting for breadcrumbs of comfort. “I was empty as a grave,” sings Khan on the glacial and icy ‘Lilies’, until the gloom’s dispersed by warm, washed-out synths and her happy-ever-after cry of “thank God I’m alive“.
Elsewhere, lead single ‘Laura’ remains a masterclass in bruised-and-brittle balladry that’s capable of squeezing a tear out of a glass eye. But it’s eclipsed by ‘All Your Gold’ – a tale of a dame who, like the dilly-dallying protagonist of ‘What’s A Girl To Do?’ finds herself stuck in a loveless relationship while pining for another loin-stirring suitor of days-gone-by. “Never see a big church steeple/When I call you on the phone,” she frets, before the lush Technicolor fuzz of the chorus explodes into life.
There’s heartbreak in the twitching insomnia of the title track, too, but ‘The Haunted Man’ is far from stripy-socked emo mithering. ‘A Wall’ is a declaration of doe-eyed devotion that mixes twinkling, Talk Talk-tinged melodies and lush, cotton-cloud synths, while ‘Oh Yeah’ makes like the bizarre lovechild of Kate Bush’s ‘Cloudbusting’ and Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’ as Khan indulges herself in some sauciness and yelps: “Here am I/Looking for a lover to climb inside“.
But, alas, there’s a villain lurking inside every fairy tale. And it’s Khan’s occasional lapses into wishy-washiness and humdrum insipidity that scuppers her plot, the moments where the wild-eyed wonder vanishes and, for all the talk of in-the-buff posing, she becomes oddly buttoned up. On the mawkish claptrap of ‘Marilyn’, say, or the overwrought handwringing of ‘Rest Your Head’, the album feels more Sister Prim than Brothers Grimm. But after three years out of the game, it’s still a semi-stonking return. Not even the dimmest set of peepers could fail to spot that, despite the odd spot of dulled colour, she’s peddling some pretty flashy wares this time round.