Monday, 23 March 2009

Bat for Lashes - Two Suns (EMI 2009)

2006's 'Fur and Gold', Bat for Lashes' debut record was a real discovery for me. I heard 'Sarah' at someone's house and further investigation lead me to an album that wouldn't leave my stereo or my fiance's, it became an omnipresent staple in our house with its shamanic naivety and childlike beauty, serene and soothing yet wild with impossible emotion. It's quite a feat considering how much new music I absorb, how long this stayed on the stereo. I was intrigued by Natasha Khan, a beautiful, lithe and quietly kooky woman, completely at odds with fashion and typified female singer-songwriters who were mouthy and sang about al frescos and boys being dickhead. She made songwriting vague again with references to magic and animal totems and the wild possibility of the skies and the simple emotiveness of 'sad eyes.' Seeing her support Radiohead last summer completed my journey to love/obsession where a field of 100,000 people who sort of knew her were seduced and subdued and captivated over a strong 45 minute set. Then the Mercury nomination came along with the Kate Bush comparison bat-lash. Ultimately, she is one of the country's finest songwriters, and now we have a gorgeous new album of hers to absorb.

On first listen, 'Two Suns' seems to be about duality, about spirituality and physiciality, about the sun. Natasha and an inner-child alter-ego, the vacuous and destructive blonde inner-self duel over the course of the album, intertwining and connecting in strange ways, exploring the philosophy of the self and the connectedness of existence. It feels filmic and narrative-heavy yet loses none of the intricate songwriting that charmed us originally. Recorded with members of Yeasayer and featuring Scott Walker on a mesmerising finale, this feels more like a band record, whereas 'Fur and Gold' felt like Natasha, with friends brought in to be orchestrated, this feels more expansive and collaborative, the songs are more ambitious and intricate, swiling and changing and oozing with meticulous power.

'Glass' is about lovers brought together in the city then torn apart and separated like two planets, two entities that belong together. With the bass drum thud and the apocalyptic wail of Natasha, the doom-laden strings and guitars menace and thud creating a sonic soundscape of two extremes.

'Sleep Alone' is bat-dark with the processed acoustic guitar riff and off-kilter disco beats. With Natasha's spooky falsetto, this feels like a doomy dancehall while Natasha wails “My mama told me / the dream of love is a two-hearted dream”. The duality theme is explored more here, and as the song reaches its denouement, you see that this disco is empty save for Natasha, alone, fighting to find her other half.

'Moon and Moon' is a sumptuous piano-laden ballad, closest to 'Fur and Gold' with its focal point being the piano and Natasha's vocal. The two twines of the moons, on their trajectory, represent two travelling lovers lost trying to get back to each other.

'Daniel' represents the biggest departure for Bat for Lashes with its hefty electro beat and poppy heart. The synth wavers and tinkles and the beats kick in and suddenly you can see Neo flying through green lines of code in the Matrix, this is film music, this is moving beautiful, powerful heavy poppy ballad stuff. Bravo to Bat for Lashes for hitting the pop parade as, while this is superior 80s electro, is the most accessible song on the album.

'Peace of Mind' is a soothing acoustic ballad with elongated country guitar that builds layer upon layer until a choral chant (an all-black all-gay gospel choir) gaves this song a wave of reverence, a wash of sunniness and burning bright light. Ben Christophers' guitar shine as does the choir that builds and builds till crescendo.

'Siren Song' is our first introduction to Pearl, the destructive blonde alter-ego, lost in New York, a wash of decadence gone sour and loneliness. The delicate piano is played until the pounds and bashes build the song into a towering eruption of emotion and beauty and sadness and wild shamanic screaming looking for a place to fit in. The search for perfect, wholesome and innocent love and the destruction of that love through emotional sabotage builds from a bashed piano into a wall of sound of flutes and strings and drums all clattering and building an impenetrable aural wall.

'Pearl's Song' continues the theme of Pearl feels like Pearl wander around the city lost, an urgent beat throbbing as she swirls around looking for something she's seem in a dream. This is the second most accessible song of the album with the Yeasayer-influenced falsetto chorus evoking both magic and triumph over adversity.

'Good Love' and 'Two Planets' are both beautiful evocations of the stars, with their twinkles and scatter-shot rumbling drums. 'Two Planets' feels like a dance tune while 'Good Love' is a slow ballad'. 'Two Planets' is the album's weak link as it occasionally veers off into a strange out of tune coda that doesn't gel with the entire song.

'Travelling Woman' is a psychedelic desert song, all sun and solitude, Natasha wandering by herself in an expanse, reflective and remorseful. The piano and drums pound a stomping walking rhythm that eases the meditation.

'The Big Sleep' is Pearl's curtain call, a duet with Scott Walker's pain-ridden disembodied voice, almost Phantom of the Opera-ish, as she calls the curtain to close, as she bids goodbye as she hangs up the dress forever, a sad sack of pain and forgotten emotion. A faded star. She is empty now and ready to leave. Spectral and electric, this is a beautiful song, almost heard out of a music box, it sounds so vintage, and as the curtain closes on the reverberating piano, we bid goodnight.

This is one of the year's most special albums, packed with content, packed with moods, a real sense of journey and the pacing of a maestro. It's sad to think that as the album dies, these songs will become disembodied over time as standalone pieces, because together they take you on a powerful emotional ride. This is an album as albums should be made, a real journey that leaves you bereft at the end, having been with it all the way to the end. Bravo Natasha Khan, this is the work of a true genius.

Bat for Lashes

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