As loath as we should usually be to take a musician’s educational background into account when assessing their work, it’s impossible not to think that Natasha Khan’s time spent studying film at university holds the key to understanding what drives her creatively.
Musically, she’s shifted shape at every turn since Fur and Gold, which turns ten in September, but her broadly cinematic approach to her records has remained consistent. Both her debut and its follow-up, 2009’s Two Suns, were thick with palpable atmosphere; The Haunted Man was icier, more calculated, but still brimmed with complex storytelling.
There was always a clear conceptual arc, too; Two Suns delved into Lynchian ideas of duality, complete with a blonde-haired alter-ego, Pearl, whilst The Haunted Man really did sound like the product of somebody who had to go back to artistic basics to force their way through excruciating writer’s block - Khan took life drawing classes and a children’s illustration course to help battle the malaise. The subsequent, visceral creative response was evident in everything from the restrained compositions to the (literally) stark cover art. There’s always been a near-literary depth to Khan’s records as Bat For Lashes, something that’s encompassed the videos she’s made and the stage shows she’s put together and her astute manner in press interviews.
To go with all that, though, there was a consistent degree of opacity. Lyrics were often shrouded in elusive metaphor, and accompanying visual materials were not intended to be easily understood, throwing up more questions than answers for the casual observer. You always get out of Khan’s work what you put into it, to the point that it can seem an intimidating exercise at times (although if you find listening to it a bit daunting, try writing about it.) All of which is to say that, whilst the filmic ambition of The Bride should surprise nobody, the forthright manner in which it’s delivered perhaps will.
Unlike everything that’s gone before it, The Bride’s concept is immediately arresting; the title is ostensibly straightforward, and only Khan’s shocking green eye shadow - surely a nod to To Bring You My Love-era PJ Harvey - suggests anything out of the ordinary about the cover photograph, which has her in a simple wedding dress. Promotional material is littered with matrimonial cliche; ‘save the date’, ‘til death do us part’. The album’s announcement was accompanied by the first page of a novel, to set the scene; our eponymous heroine stands at the altar, doom already heavy in the air, before disaster strikes - the groom is killed in a car wreck on the way to the church. Rather than face the tragic enormity of the situation, The Bride flees in the honeymoon car, alone.
In less able hands, the stage would be set for an uncomplicated concept record - a dramatic road trip born out of catastrophe. This being Khan, that was never likely to be the case. An album on which we are openly invited to assume that she’s playing a fictional character should be her least personal yet. Quite the contrary. The Bride is a vehicle for Khan to turn the lens back on herself, in a way that she hasn’t since Fur and Gold. There’s a neatness to the fact that this album arrives nearly exactly a decade since her debut, because the parallels between the two are varied and many. If a single theme united the songs on Fur and Gold, it was femininity and the exploration thereof; “Prescilla” yearned simultaneously for freedom and domesticity, “What’s a Girl to Do?” was caught between wanting both familiarity and passion, and “Trophy” tried to reconcile sex and love.
These same conflicts define The Bride and, in the process, make this Khan’s most honest LP to date. There is, again, that push and pull; the initial excitement of marriage fading into mundanity, the blurry line between independence and loneliness, the struggle to strike a balance between leading a creatively fulfilling life and adhering to the conventional social thinking on relationships. Khan’s directorial debut, a short film entitled I Do that shares its name with the opening track on this record, suggests that such themes have been on her mind for quite some time. Two Suns and The Haunted Man both seemed marked by the world around her and her experiences on the road; on The Bride, she seems to be projecting rather than absorbing.
At the heart of the album’s storytelling nous is a clear emotional trajectory that bleeds into the sound of the songs. The record’s first half covers the slow onset of The Bride’s grief for the future she’s been robbed of; “Joe’s Dream” is a sparse premonition with the occasional clang of doomy guitar over an ominous beat, the calm before the storm of “In God’s House”, which has Khan’s vocals gradually nudging towards operatic intensity over a backdrop of juxtaposed synths - by turns fluttery and foggy.
Any record with this level of cinematic ambition is bound to have taken some cues from Angelo Badalamenti along the way, and as much as it might seem like cliche to reference the Twin Peaks soundtrack - being as it is the cornerstone of murky, dreamy atmospherics - Khan harnesses it well here, especially on the sneering “Honeymooning Alone”, with guitar plucked straight from fifties Americana. The barren simplicity of “Never Forgive the Angels” and “Close Encounters” follow similar tacks; the former just Khan, a juddering bassline and the odd flicker of guitar and piano, the latter putting a ghostly vocal over a restrained orchestral bed and a heartbeat-mimicking rhythm.
And that’s really the key point about The Bride. We already know that this is Khan’s most richly realised record so far, with the concept stretching as far as newspaper cuttings and air fresheners coming with the deluxe LP, and with audience members at live shows being asked to dress as they would for a wedding. Crucially, though, this is also her most musically subtle and lyrically direct album to date. Both developments really suit her. There are probably points on Two Suns and The Haunted Man where you could find her guilty of sonic embellishment, but The Bride feels lean and punchy; by the time we find her on an emotional upswing by the record’s close, there’s no crescendo, just a degree of tranquility on cuts like “I Will Love Again”, after “Widow’s Peak” provides the stormy turning point. There is nuance where the storytelling might so easily have called for bombast. Anyone can make a concept album, but to make one this good requires a director’s eye for plot, pacing, and what to leave on the cutting room floor. Perhaps more musicians should go to film school.