Bat For Lashes - Two Suns

Tim Miller 05/04/2009

Rating: 4/5

One of the biggest surprises in Natasha Khan's relatively short incarnation as Bat For Lashes is that she doesn't already have a Mercury under her belt. The 29-year old's debut, 2006's Fur and Gold, was already an underground success, snowballing towards widespread critical acclaim and feverish expectation for the following year's Mercury Music Award, only for Klaxons to spoil the party. After a further two BRIT nominations - also foiled - Bat For Lashes was snatched back from the precipice of commercialism to some relief. That was all two years or so ago, though, and as Two Suns finds her much changed, Khan might very well be onto another meteoric rise.

It isn't, however, a glaringly obvious new sound, direction or image. Khan's colourful, vaguely psychedelic aura remains, as does some of the ethereal mysticism that filled and, admittedly at times, hindered her debut. And, when a clunking, off-key guitar sound forms the chords of the progressive pop opening track Glass, a moody piece forged on deep rumbling drums and a lonely vocal start, there is no hint that the beguiling arrangements that adorned her previous album have vanished either. In fact, it may be only a subtle alteration, but it makes such a big difference. The elements that made Fur and Gold a bewitching listen are distilled into more organised segments, anchored by perhaps more conventional sources - namely percussion, proper drums and basslines - and the songs, indeed the whole album, benefit hugely for it.

Take Peace of Mind, more broody and dark than the album opener, a slow march with choir backing that draws near, building ominously and threatening briefly before passing. Existing perfectly well in its own right, it doesn't suddenly fork off into a spangly instrumental outro but remains content with what it is. Tellingly, it sits on the album between two other highlights of starkly different composition: the Annie Lennox aping Siren Song, a stunning, moving piano-led effort with epic, rousing choruses of echoed vocal, and the current single Daniel, which you'll probably know as “that song that sounds like 1980s Fleetwood Mac”. It does, but it's also brilliant - understated, airy pop with just enough integrity to raise it above slanderous comparisons to aforementioned marmite artist.

Khan, clearly, is not a one to be pigeonholed. The again piano-driven duet with the unmistakable timbre of Scott Walker, The Big Sleep, is Two Sun's eerie closer, a haunting and not altogether happy final act, while that patented dreamy, mystic quality that captivated on Fur and Gold is mobilised to great effect on Good Love and Two Planets, a classic Khan couplet that rescues the album from its lone lowpoint, the dull Keane-soundalike Pearl's Dream.

It is indicative of Khan's talent that she can conjure - a word that seems most apt - such striking material, songs that reference seminal female artists like Lennox, Kate Bush and Bjork. Her distinctive, faintly posh British voice is always superb: strong, fragile, compelling, combining feathery melodies and soaring cries with ease. It's effortlessly natural, particularly on the dub-pop Sleep Alone with its hurt lyric ”Lonely, lonely, lonely / his mother told me the dream of love is a two-hearted dream” and the heart-wrenching skeletal ballad Moon and Moon. The lyrical imagery is at full strength on album number two also, continually reinventing tender stories of two hearts, two souls trying to exist together, sometimes with and sometimes without success. Her alter ego 'Pearl' channels some of this storytelling, but not once is it disinteresting; Khan being a believable, genuine songwriter, every line hangs with emotion. Fronting a tapestry of rich, elegiac sounds, at times moments on Two Suns are quite simply outstanding.

It doesn't seem long since Natasha Khan appeared looking like a frightened rabbit in wolf's clothing performing on television, but time enough has passed and she has not been idle. Two Suns will see Khan's star rising, and it would be churlish in the extreme to bet against a second Mercury nomination. It is an affirmation of the unique approach to songwriting that is Khan's wont, emboldened by a strengthening of production but retaining her glittering fusion of sounds: a diamond of a second album, the sort of follow up many artists would dream of. What it is Natasha Khan dreams of might only make sense fully to the woman herself, but simply put, what it translates into on record is a sparkling musical triumph.

Released 6th April 2009