Shadowy art-pop experimenter crates a grueling yet rewarding song cycle.
Bat for Lashes mastermind Natasha Khan has long cultivated the myth of the wistful chanteuse, presenting dusky, dreamy declarations of emptiness and yearning on her past three albums. She’s like Stevie Nicks wearing bat wings instead of shawls, This Mortal Coil with a (very slight) backbeat or PJ Harvey with a synth orchestra. On her latest, the concept album The Bride, she fully embraces darkness to beautiful and depressing effects.
The record builds off a short film Khan made called I Do about a bride whose husband-to-be dies in a car crash on the way to their wedding and the loss that follows as she goes on their honeymoon heartbroken and alone. The music, written and recorded mostly by Khan and a small group of collaborators, is appropriately dour, but it complements Khan’s story well.
“Honeymooning Alone” begins with a stark, syncopated bass highlighted with shimmering harp as she sings about how lost she feels. The somber “Never Forgive the Angels” contains some of Khan’s most harrowing lyrics – “Nightmares come and they don’t go for my love is gone/ And I will never forgive the angels for that” – amid slowly marching bass and piano and a chorus of “oohs.” Even when musical austerity is her goal, she creates sounds that are purposefully surreal, such as the synthesizers that sparkle gently around Khan’s voice as she sings, “What’s this I see?/ My baby died on the beach” on “In God’s House.” The narrative can be morbid or morose depending where the bride is in the Kübler-Ross model. Surprisingly, though, the music sometimes offers an emotional counterpoint, like the bright “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” harpsichord and symphonics on the otherwise ultra-depressing “In Your Bed,” in which the bride lies in bed and imagines what could have been if her lover were still alive, sound almost hopeful.
Khan has paced the album well – it unfolds as the titular character comes undone mentally and eventually follows towards something like resignation with the song “I Will Love Again.” Yet, it still suffers the sort of overly arty indulgences that plague so many concept pieces. She melodramatically recites a gloomy poem about conspiring angels and being “lost in the mire” on “Widows Peak” (complete with stormy sound effects) and by the time toy get to “In Your Bed,” you can’t help but pray that this bride meets someone new, not just for her own sake but ours aswell. In the context of the concept, the album lags when the story gets too heavy.
But there are many songs on The Bride that transcend its thematic conceit and stand on their own as unique puzzle pieces in Kahn’s steadfastly mystifying persona. “Joe’s Dream,” told from the perspective of the ill-fated groom, with its soaring “I am falling in love,” and “Close Encounters,” with its swelling strings, could just as easily serve as heartbreaking stand-alone story songs similar to past wistful Bat for Lashes entries like “Laura” and “Marilyn.” In the end, they all enhance the shadowy Weltschmerz that’s always been the most interesting thing about her music.