Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Review: Bat for Lashes - Two Suns (* * * 1/2)

Also posted (and more pleasantly presented) at In Review Online

British singer/songwriter Natasha Khan’s debut album as Bat for Lashes, the acclaimed
Fur and Gold, probably set the bar unfairly high for Khan’s future endeavors. The album was regarded by many to be among the best of 2006 and was nominated for the 2007 Mercury Prize, vaulting this previously unknown artist to the indie A-list almost instantly. Khan’s latest, Two Suns, takes the artist's theatrical stylings to new heights, featuring plenty of strangely poetic musings on the duality of life and love and introducing us to her hedonistic blond alter-ego, Pearl. And even though Two Suns contains most of the elements that made Bat for Lashes’ debut great, it fails to captivate as consistently or as completely, amounting to a slight case of the sophomore slump.

Certainly, no one could accuse Khan of laziness, as Two Suns represents a stylistic shift toward a smoother, more polished sound which the beginning of the album would suggest is a step in the right direction. Opener “Glass” begins with a hauntingly beautiful a cappella verse before sliding into a hypnotic mix of thundering percussion and a variety of distantly placed instruments that result in a climax showing Khan’s impressive range. The sinister, yet sexy “Sleep Alone” continues with an entrancing, synth-heavy groove, and a couple songs later, “Daniel” impresses with a funky, muted ballad-- one of the album’s clear highlights in a generally strong opening run. So far, so good, but the middle of the record slows the tempo and the excitement, especially with the repetitious “Siren Song” and the beautifully sung, but strangely unengaging “Good Love.” There are a few more highlights near the record’s end (the best of which is “Two Planets”), but it never quite recovers from a sleepy mid-section.

Like Fur and Gold, Two Suns rests its success on the listener’s ability to get sucked into the whole experience, not just a great song or two, and that’s where the new record really falters. Khan’s subject matter has always been fantastical, summoning images of wizardry, mystical creatures and similarly otherworldly subjects, but Two Suns is a real mind-bender. There’s a fascinating narrative in there somewhere, but it’s abstract enough to be awfully frustrating when Khan throws around lines like “with a sound like white magic caught in a black car’s blazing trail” unless you’re dedicated enough to figure out what the hell is going on.

It would be inappropriate to label Two Suns as a misstep for Bat for Lashes, as that usually implies a more obvious failing-- and, in fact, the album feels like something of a step forward for Khan, which may prove to be a necessary stepping stone for her next project-- but, while its wealth of ideas make it easy to appreciate, the music itself feels somewhat uninspired and can be difficult to love. I doubt Khan's best days are behind her, or that she's even revealed her full potential, and when she connects in the future as strongly as she has in the past, we should see some spectacular results.

Last Word:

Natasha Khan’s sophomore album as Bat for Lashes is a more uneven and less inspired affair than her debut, but retains enough of her initial promise that the record feels both frustrating and intriguing.