No matter what kind of songs you write, it’s impossible not to sound at least a little bit like someone else. Just ask art-pop princess Natasha Khan, who, under the performing name Bat for Lashes, always kinda-sorta sounded exactly like Kate Bush.
On her first two albums, 2006’s Fur and Gold and 2009’s Two Suns, Khan came off as Bush’s long-lost stepdaughter, with an ear for mystical hooks, fantasy-driven narratives, and icy synth-pop atmospheres. But those songs never sounded derivative, mostly because they were so hypnotic and catchy that it was hard to care in the first place.
But on her third album, The Haunted Man, Khan takes her Kate Bush obsession to new extremes with diminishing returns, channeling her fairy godmother’s brooding soundscapes and ’80s-style production but little of her sensual melodic catharsis. “Lilies” opens the album with dull impact, Khan cooing in her most operatic style over blaring synth-bass, rote strings, and Hounds of Love beats. “I was empty as a grave,” she sings in dead-end melodic repetition. It’s a telling lyric; much of The Haunted Man feels vacant, both emotionally and sonically.
Reportedly written after a debilitating period of writer’s block, The Haunted Man is the most minimal, raw entry in Khan’s catalog. Her voice, front and center on every track, is stripped of its usual widescreen reverb, and many of her performances reflect a first-take intimacy. On the percussive, droning “Horses of the Sun,” she stretches her voice to its lowest depths, nearly cracking out altogether. Her vocals are colored and framed by bone-dry snares, eerie synth pads, twinkling autoharps, and subtle orchestrations that barely rise above a polite whisper.
A lot can be done with that stripped-down palette—for proof, check out Bush’s 2011 effort, the ultra-sparse and endlessly captivating 50 Words for Snow. But Khan’s nuts-and-bolts songs rarely make a lasting impression. “All Your Gold,” a tortured confession of fading love with a twitchy, hushed groove and booming chorus, sounds like a botched cover of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”—Khan’s zonked-out vocal delivery is drained of emotion.
“I never see a big church steeple when I call you on the phone/Never feel the rush of angels when we stay up late alone,” she sings. “But you’re a good man/I keep telling myself to just let go.” These lyrics deserve a passionate, nuanced delivery, but Khan only seems concerned with appearing artsy, belting the chorus in a detached, robotic sigh. And when she cranks up the Bush-inspired melodrama elsewhere, the results are equally mixed. Before settling into a perky synth-pop groove, “Oh Yeah” opens with a ridiculously corny choral intro; “Winter Fields” is effective, production-wise, conjuring miles and miles of snow through its frosty beats and marching, “Cloudbusting”-style strings, but the melody is practically nonexistent.
The album’s first glimmer of palpable emotion comes with the piano ballad “Laura,” which focuses on a would-be lover’s creepy obsession with a mysterious celebrity. “You’re the train that crashed my heart/You’re the glitter in the dark,” Khan sings over stark piano chords, sneering cello, and moaning brass. It turns out that going even more minimal might have been the right approach. Here, freed from the frosty, repetitive beats and synths, she sounds invigorated, her voice fluttering with anguish as it leaps from breathy whispers to belted high notes.
The Haunted Man perks up significantly in its second half, finally settling into a more relaxed pace, balancing Khan’s heavy lyrics with glitchy electro-R&B grooves. “Marilyn” is a welcome sign of life, boasting bright piano and a trippy vocoder, Khan soaring to her highest range on the album’s hookiest chorus. “A Wall” is another welcome slice of chilly synth-pop, with an effortless drum groove and a frosty synth-string blast that hits like an arctic wind. Meanwhile, the programmed beats on “Rest Your Head” snake and scatter with some actual energy.
But even at its best, there isn’t a single track here that reaches the witchy, spellbinding glory of Khan’s early anthems like “Daniel” and “Glass.” On those songs, Khan’s art-school sensibilities and melodic prowess were one in the same; in comparison, The Haunted Man sounds strained and indistinct. Kate Bush certainly had her share of arty, overly precious songs—but she also had the experimental edge and sensual vocal approach to back up her wildest flights of fancy. The Haunted Man has all of the affectations of prime Bush, but very little of the nuance or substance.