I discovered Bat for Lashes almost randomly one late night while perusing a now-defunct celebrity playlist feature on iTunes. That particular week featured Thom Yorke's picks, and his list of leftfield recommendations included Fur and Gold, Natasha Khan's moody, hushed debut as Bat for Lashes that effectively combined Yorke's own taste for gloomy atmospherics with a decidedly more organic and bohemian aesthetic. Khan's dark piano pop has come a long way since then, and the near-perfection of her sophomore effort, Two Suns, inevitably saddles The Haunted Man with a crushing amount of expectation.
What's clear from the album's outset, however, is that Khan has no interest in trying to outstrip Two Suns's grandeur. Instead, like its cover art, The Haunted Man is desaturated and naked, an unexpected tack for an artist whose brilliance lies in sweeping, dreamy art-pop paeans reminiscent of '80s baroque maven Kate Bush and pre-Volta Björk. Khan still expertly emulates those artists (particularly the latter's trickling, Vespertine-style drum-pad progressions in the album's quieter moments), but she deliberately attempts to bypass the anthemic and evocative nature of her past work. Thus, instead of towering pieces like "Daniel" or "Glass," listeners are treated to album highlights like the subdued but alluring "Lilies," the swirling piano ballad "Laura," and the billowy "Marilyn."
Khan is a charismatic and beguiling performer, but at times she becomes incredibly infatuated with her own Bronte-esque narratives and fantastic realism. Those qualities are endearing when her melodies soar, but when they don't, her lyrical theatricality can come off a bit histrionic. Much of Two Suns's success was earned by matching powerful lyrics with equally ascendant tunes, but from the straightforward syncopation of "Rest Your Head" to the meandering synth of "Oh Yeah," The Haunted Man's music often falls flat in comparison to the splendor of Khan's imagery. When she finally half-whispers, "Baby, let your hair down/It's time to get enchanted," on the album-closing "Deep Sea Diver," her words beg for something more extraordinary than the song's softly chugging backing track. But while the album's comparatively restrained arrangements occasionally wilt in the face of Khan's fierce melodrama, The Haunted Man is still a worthy, often gorgeous entry in the Bat for Lashes canon.