Union Chapel is the obvious venue for Bat For Lashes to perform songs from their new album The Bride – a concept album based around a woman’s wedding day.
Natasha Khan walks to the stage through the pews in an elegant full length dress, and even tosses a bouquet over her shoulder towards the set’s close. Even the audience gamely get into the mood: I see a few three piece suits, and gowns cut to the naval.
The majority of the set is given over to a preview of almost all of this upcoming record. In an atmospheric, seated setting, this works well – performing to an audience excited to absorb unfamiliar material, and rapturously grateful for it. The sound is recognisably Bat For Lashes, and she seems happy to play the melancholic songstress again, after her foray into more visceral, propulsive material on last year’s psychy SEXWITCH.
As you might expect, Khan’s greatest asset is still her truly beautiful voice, which commands an even stronger power than usual in the reverend intimacy of Union Chapel. The melodies of new songs like "Close Encounters" and "If I Knew" are just gorgeous, and stop these songs from collapsing under the weight of their lofty narrative ambition (one of these, after all, is about the bride/widow’s vision of a green light, and an experience of making love to the ‘other side’). Alone at the piano for the latter, Khan melds vulnerability with confidence, providing set highlights which are truly dazzling.
Khan’s best loved songs showcase her knack for writing big, dramatic hooks which suit her voice perfectly, and these moments soar as you might expect tonight – the “when I run through the dark” of a pared back "Daniel"; the “you’re more than a superstar” of the astonishingly captivating "Laura". It’s difficult to grasp just by listening to the records just how arresting Khan’s voice is at full wingspan, and how strong a command she has over her performance. At her best, this is world class.
At her worst, however, some of these songs are a pretentiously saccharine. It’s quite hard to accept a grown adult standing on a stage, nonchalantly strumming an omnichord with one hand, and singing about how “sorrow will drop away like dew from a flower in bloom” without embarrassment. This streak has followed her throughout her career. "What’s A Girl To Do?" awkwardly lurches between spoken word verses, and a plodding, overwrought chorus, and it’s as much of a disaster tonight as it was ten years ago. The grace of her performance isn’t always enough to mask the shallowness of some of these songs.
In all, tonight suggests that The Bride will be another delicate but artful entry in the Bat For Lashes catalogue, combining both her best and her worst traits. The melodies are beautiful and they are sung to perfection, but the overwrought narrative arc of the songs – about a bride whose husband-to-be dies on the way to their wedding – feels more than ever like a high school expressive arts project. On balance, her strengths overcome her shortcomings tonight, especially in an adoring, sold out Union Chapel. At a show she jokingly(?) refers to as her wedding, the congregation couldn’t be prouder of Khan on her special day.