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A special talent,
This review is from: Two Suns [Digi-Pack] (Audio CD)
Natasha Khan made sure she shot out the traps and hit the ground running. With debut album Fur And Gold, Bat For Lashes surpassed everyone's expectations by very nearly securing the Mercury Music Award first time around. With the unique pressure that faces any artist that achieves an unforeseen amount of early success, follow up album Two Suns was a genuine litmus test for Khan. Well, the news is good. The new record sees Khan chart unknown territory and cements her place as one of this country's finest innovators. Simply mentioning Khan's legitimate reference points - Björk, Kate Bush and PJ Harvey - is probably enough to convince most that she is a true musical heavyweight and simply cannot be ignored.
As its title suggests, the album sees Khan building tracks around a futuristic vision. Khan's synth-led landscapes are a cold accompaniment to what can feel like a bleak and desolate world. Echo-strewn vocals punctuate the album's detached sound, endowing Two Suns with an abstract and challenging character. It's almost as though Kate Bush were cryogenically preserved and awakened in the next century, with a microphone immediately thrust in front of her.
Khan's appreciation for the mythical and the fantastical is clear from the outset. Glass' chilling introduction - where Khan wakes and psyches herself for battle - is the calm before the storm. Soon the track broadens into an angry depiction of the future, featuring concussive drum pounding and disturbing high-pitched shrieks. The record's unsettling start instantly sets the mood. It appears that Khan's electronic vision of the future is not a particularly positive one.
The album's inventive use of electronica is as impressive as it is unpredictable. Two Suns includes everything, from radio-friendly breakbeat to the frightening anarchism of Aphex Twin. While the album sometimes bears the unpolished characteristics of a shoegazer's bedroom recording, it is clear that Khan is not afraid to flex her muscles from time to time. Khan takes satisfaction in confounding the listener with the addition of improbable percussive layers, and this album's ability to catch you off guard is one of its many positives.
Khan's unsettling industrial rhythms certainly seem as "big venue" as those of Underworld and Orbital. Yes, you can picture Bat For Lashes and a throbbing main stage at Glastonbury lit by a profusion of blinking, neon florescence, but this isn't electronic music that you can always dance to. Predominantly, this is cerebral music for the head and for the soul. It is replete with complexity and measured by its depth and not by its BPM. However, Khan never allows her fetish for electronica to downgrade old fashioned, organic instrumentation. Instead, the album offers the listener an amalgam of both worlds. Drum machines here, pianos, organs and tambourines there.
Moon And Moon illustrates Khan's ability to strip back her own sound, liberating herself from the album's distant futurism. With her strikingly raw vocals - now reminiscent of Sarah McLachlan - laid bare against a simple piano melody, Khan ponders her loneliness: "when this wild world / is a big bad hand / pushing on my back / do you understand? / when I get hurt / been in the jungle / where's my bear to lick me clean / feed my soul milk and honey?" Khan's poetry is both obscure and personal, leading you down dead ends and places you're not supposed to be. Both lyrically and musically, the influence of Kate Bush - and others such as Nico and Imogen Heap - is for all to hear.
Although the album's subject matter is occasionally hard to unravel, Two Suns' overriding emotion is one of desire. At times fantastical and beautiful, Khan's yearning is often overcome by paranoia and apprehension. This has the regular effect of mutating her peaceful longing into a cold desperation. The nervousness and intensity of the electronic context turns Khan's wistful poetry into something much more acute and it doesn't take long to realise that Khan's desire is often brought about by a chronic fear of loneliness and of a life left incomplete.
Khan's desire manifests itself in any number of ways throughout the album's duration. Peace Of Mind's slow country gospel march is a bizarre backdrop to Khan's wistful confusion: "build a ladder to the sky / sit up there and say you're mine / does looking down make me a queen / or the star that I see?" Siren Song reveals the extent of Khan's desire: "can I stay with you a while / can I stop off in your bed tonight / I can make you smile / in the morning I'll make you breakfast / in the evening I'll warm the bed." Soon this maternal affection is overwhelmed by feelings of "wickedness and sin." The album's fluctuating moods reflect the complexity of Khan's desire and her life's uneven journey. Yet, the album's ever-changing tapestry is not short of instant gratification. Daniel, a sublime single in itself, merges the sultry, top 10 pop of Fleetwood Mac with Kate Bush's most fanciful flights.
Some will spend the album's duration questioning or belittling Khan's otherworldly imaginings - but then they would be missing the point. If your dreams (and even your wildest thoughts) are a place of logic, then please beg to differ. Khan's mission is to evoke the beauty of the unreal, places that even science isn't sure about. She should be applauded for having the guts to tap into the unknown.
Two Suns is a misty graveyard of dreams and fantasies, both benevolent and sincere. Yet conversely, it can feel as warped as the cause of that bad night's sleep that still terrifies you now. In other words, this is music not easily forgotten. Khan skilfully traverses reality and delusion, dreams and nightmares and love and obsession. At any given moment, Two Suns is able to rekindle your faith in music's ability to surprise. One of the year's best, without a shadow of doubt.