Natasha Khan (aka Bat For Lashes) is no stranger to conceptual projects. Her breakthrough album, 2009’s Two Suns, is loosely centered around a wild alter ego to Khan’s subdued personality. Last year’s debut Sexwitch album found her teaming with English rock band TOY on a collection of psych covers ranging from Iran to Thailand. However, she has never fully embraced a concept quite like she does with new album The Bride.
While Khan dismisses the notion that her latest is a “concept album,” the record is laid out as a single thematic story. All of the accompanying multimedia — the cinematic, trippy self-directed music videos, the inner album sleeve that recounts the tale in detail, her tour of churches throughout America and Britain — centers around the album’s title character.
The story of the Bride’s life first surfaced in a 2015 short film entitled I Do. In that film, a woman’s fiancé’s is killed in a fatal auto accident on the day of their wedding. Upon hearing the news, the Bride quickly escapes the chapel and commandeers her fallen lover’s car. The album follows her journey as she travels through a self-revelatory trip of late-night seances under thunder-strewn skies, bouts of righteous anger against the heavens for dealing her such an unfortunate hand, and the sad yet uplifting acceptance of her fate.
That narrative is accurately reflected in the music’s somber, atmospheric haze. The gentle, happy sway of “I Do” is equally matched by the Western noir sigh and skittering rhythms of “Honeymooning Alone”. The seance-driven “Widow’s Peak” — all smoky, velvet-draped rooms and eerie thunderstorm — is a prime example of Khan’s knack for setting a scene and letting it play out in sepia tones. “Never Forgive the Angels” is equally bewitching, a bluesy drone that hangs on the incessant pounding of a single, deep guitar note that is eventually joined by twinkling piano and brooding backing vocals and percussion.
One of the few relatively upbeat songs on the album, “Sunday Love” dances along to a motorik beat that sounds like a subdued take on Sexwitch. Mourning omnichords disguised as harps waft and uplift over a throbbing bass and Neu!-esque beat. In fact, the omnichord permeates The Bride, adding a wealth of twinkling music box harps that cascade through choruses. Khan also displays some of her most expressive and emotive vocals. The confidence earned on 2012’s The Haunted Man carries over into The Bride, Khan stretching her vocals on “Close Encounters” over a weeping orchestra and a singular kick drum.
Production-wise the album is beautifully clean — though pristine wouldn’t be quite the right word. It’s a lush beauty reminiscent of Talk Talk’s finer, late career landscapes. Orchestral backing, warm synths, and electric pianos float in and out of sight. While there’s nothing as over-the-top as Two Sun‘s “Glass” or as pop as The Haunted Man‘s “All Your Gold” (“In God’s House” is close, but its brooding nature pushes it further away), The Bride is Khan’s most unified and diverse album. By the end of the album, the understated experimentation of the middle half is eschewed in favor of a four-song set of emotional slowburners. The change would be jarring if not for the story running throughout. Instead, it’s more along the lines of an inevitable conclusion — one final moment before the curtain drops.
The melancholic lament “If I Knew” slowly floats into the sky on the back of gooey, bassy synths. With a pair of good headphones, the song slowly melts around you. “I Will Love Again” is the long-awaited cathartic release, a torch song that on first listen seems too obvious, but eventually reveals itself to be the emotional core of the album. Khan’s vocals dreamily lay over muted strings as the song refuses to build up to anything more than a whisper. Khan’s admission that “one of these nights, one of these days/ I will love again” is more silent acceptance than celebratory revelation.
The yearning plea “In Your Bed” is marked by subtle piano arpeggios and the album’s most affecting melody. Interestingly enough, for an album that so greatly depends upon its carefully sequenced story, Khan offers two potential endings. While “In Your Bed” lovingly ends with the Bride hoping to “lay in your bed and dream together,” “Clouds” closes the digital version of the album in a more realistic fashion. The Bride admits that she is “lost/ Until some day you will come/ And love [her],” and pleads for the grey skies and rain to “wash [her] clean through this night.” The two songs work both together and apart, their stark beauty deeply resonating with the mixed emotions of the narrative.
While it all may seem rather bleak, rays of light eventually cut through the gloom. The Bride’s captivating story and thoughtful arrangements prove addictive, as Khan’s impressive songwriting rewards multiple listens, another step toward the vaunted pantheon of British art rock.
Essential Tracks: “I Do”, “Sunday Love”, and “In God’s House”