Album number three. In the trajectory of any recording career, it’s a milestone. But it’s one with a mythology so powerful it’s become a syndromic cliché, around which swirls a dread that threatens to swallow its (supposedly) panicking creator. For plenty of artists, the “difficult third album” can loom like a hurdle of K2-scaled monumentality. How the hell might you tackle it, is the question. The answer, if you’re Bat for Lashes, is you simply climb higher and through that, conquer your fears.
The creation of Natasha Khan, Bat for Lashes first captured hearts way back in 2006 with a set of distinctively haunting and rich, darkly phantasmagoric songs ripe with magic realism. Her sensual and gilt-decorated dream world was opened up in two Mercury Music Prize nominated albums, the atavistic, reverb-drenched Fur and Gold (2006) and 2009’s more electronically poppy Two Suns.
In the wake of its success, Khan was left in a migratory, unfixed state and a not altogether certain frame of mind. Coming off a heavy tour and after the end of a trans-Atlantic relationship, she decided some self-nurturing was in order and resolved to take as much time as was needed to make her third album. “I felt quite drained and tired, creatively,” Khan remembers, “so I decided to get back to this really domesticated existence in my flat in Brighton. I felt like I needed to be immersed in nature and have a quiet, reflective time.” That involved working on dance films, writing a script, children’s book illustrations, a spell of volunteer gardening at Charleston House in East Sussex (the Bloomsbury Group’s country retreat) and going back to Brighton University for some informal tutorials with her old art teacher and reading recommended books. One of these, ‘The Enchantment of Art’ provided a small epiphany and planted a seed of change in her approach to what was to become The Haunted Man.
“I found it interesting,” she says of the book, “because I’d felt quite disenchanted myself and needed to find the magic again. It’s about how modernism is all to do with the individual, and the fact that your worth is measured in how different and inventive you can be. The more we get into post-modernism, the harder it is to feel that you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before. I was trying to navigate fresh waters and find something new to say with the third record, and a lot of the book talks about getting back to nature sacred spaces and about communal, collaborative activities.”
Khan’s aim with that song was “to learn something about writing a standard, because my chord progressions are naturally more subversive. The concept of a middle-eight is really foreign to me! It was like doing a workshop in songwriting, and I think it’s really helped me see where you can go. I’ve always been a bit snobbish about the idea of writing with somebody else, but when I looked back at a lot of artists I admire and respect, it turned out they had often co-written their songs.” Relinquishing her idea of “ownership” a little isn’t the only change Khan has made with this record. It’s a bolder, more direct album that’s achieved Khan’s aim of “clearing away a lot of the fog”, without sacrificing any of her trademark sensuality or emotionalism.
Other changes Khan effected ran deeper than the album’s sonics, and involved her making important bloodline connections and observing generational patterns, leading to an exploration of her own ancestry. The idea of place – geographical, emotional and spiritual – has always been important in her music and the nomadic Two Suns was very much to do with America. This time, Khan decided to put her roots down in her homeland, resulting in a very English record.