By Michael Atkinson
By Luke Winkie
By Steve Weinstein
By Brian McManus
By Brian McManus
By Dan McQuade
By Dan McQuade
By Brian McManus
In the classic 1955 noir film The Night of the Hunter, Robert Mitchum plays a demented "preacher" who murders widows for their money, his knuckles tattooed with the letters L-O-V-E on one hand and H-A-T-E on the other. Bat for Lashes, a/k/a 29-year-old Natasha Khan, toys with similar themes of duality—"dark and light, love and hate, angel and the devil," as she puts it—on her moody and majestic new album, Two Suns. The ethereal singer's 2007 debut, the Mercury Prize–nominated Fur and Gold, triggered numerous Kate Bush comparisons, with archaic instruments like the harpsichord further contributing to the enchanting, otherworldly feel. But now she's following a much darker emotional arc, based on a very real experience: the end of a relationship, both romantic and geographical.
On Suns, Khan sublimates her anguish over love lost in an invented personality she calls "Pearl"—not uncoincidentally the name of the little girl who flees Mitchum downriver with her older brother in Hunter. "Pearl inspired me," Khan says. "She's lost in the world, and she and her brother travel down the river looking for home. The album is about a search for a home, and belonging, and searching for love."
Pearl surfaced roughly two years ago, when Khan moved from her seaside home in Brighton, England, to Williamsburg to be with her boyfriend at the time, musician Will Lemon. (Lemon records as Moon and Moon, which is also the title of a haunting piano ballad on Suns—and the starkest, saddest song on the record.) Things didn't work out as planned: The gritty, artistically inspiring city she remembered from a trip 10 years before had been supplanted by conformity and condos. Soon, her relationship with Lemon unraveled, too: "I had an element of sadness and heartbreak over New York, realizing that the dream was better than reality—in a lot of areas in my life." Soon, Khan took to dressing up as Pearl—blonde wig, fake eyelashes, stark makeup—and wandering the streets of Williamsburg. "Pearl represents escape and self-delusion—an illusion that is shattered. I thought this was going to be home, and this great love affair . . . so it was a difficult kind of awakening."
Still, she stops short of calling this a breakup album: "There are elements of heartbreak and destruction. That's the reason I called it Two Suns: two planets crashing and connecting and then moving apart. But I do hope the album transcends that."
Khan grew up in Hertfordshire with her British mother, but spent summer holidays in Pakistan with her father, a strict Muslim who expected his daughter to pray five times a day. He left the family when Khan was 11, and she went on to absorb her mother's Christian lifestyle, attending school at the Church of England. "I got plenty of religion growing up," she says, and though she claims not to be religious now, her lyrics are rich with mystical imagery ("Flames fell into orbit/To hold eternally/Two heavenly spirits/That just wouldn't see," on the elegiac opener "Glass") and references to the Song of Solomon. On "Good Love," Pearl searches for a town by that name, which vanishes like the cursed village of Brigadoon as Pearl passes it in a dreamlike stupor, her safe harbor eclipsed in a fiery conflagration.
Much of Suns was written in Joshua Tree, where Khan spent time at Dave Catching's famed Rancho De La Luna recording studio (a spot more frequently associated with Queens of the Stone Age), immersed in nature and far from hectic city living. "I found it difficult to function creatively in a very concrete environment," she says. Adding to Suns' cosmic feel are contributions by the experimental Brooklyn psych-rock band Yeasayer—whom she met while touring with Radiohead in Europe—and hermetic crooner Scott Walker's rare cameo on album closer "The Big Sleep," a duet set to piano and haunting washes of electronic static.
Though the album functions as a passage from dark to darker yet, Khan proves that she also has a sense of humor, notably on the album's single, "Daniel," which loosely concerns her childhood crush: Daniel LaRusso from The Karate Kid. (She even spent a day getting his likeness skin-painted on her back for use in the album artwork.) And as opposed to the dualistic, black-and-white nature of the album's message, Khan encourages ambiguity and shades of gray when interpreting her stories: "I like to leave space for people to incorporate their own ideas," she says with a laugh. "I don't want to completely kill the mystery."
Bat for Lashes play Bowery Ballroom April 30 and Music Hall of Williamsburg May 2