Six long years have passed since she gifted us the dark and atmospheric ‘Fur & Gold’, an impressive debut that was by turns playful, dramatic, and emotional. The cover art and opening track ‘Horse And I’ linked her visually and semantically to one of her self-confessed heroes – Smith – while the glittery facepaint, sequinned headbands, and faux-spiritual Native American-themed videos placed her firmly outside the mainstream; an independent, trusting her instincts and faithful to her vision. True, the quirkiness was less pronounced on 2009’s ‘Two Suns’, but blazing her own path has been remarkably successful; two Mercury nominations, an Ivor Novello, and a Top Ten hit is not a bad haul for someone determined to play by her own rules.
As with Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’, Khan’s third LP is very much grounded in, and of, England; specifically, her childhood stomping ground of Hertfordshire, and the bucolic, rolling greenery of Sussex, where she spent much time trying to escape crippling writer’s block. It also apes that album’s themes of war, trauma, and loss, grown up topics very much in tune with ‘The Haunted Man’s more sombre tone. Maybe it was turning thirty, or her desire to start a family, but feelings and emotions that previously bubbled under the surface have now burst into the light, offering an insight into what’s been on her mind these past three years.
The influence of all those great women is present and correct, but this is no random cherry picking or ugly mosaic of styles; rather, it’s a skilful distillation of everything that made them great, stamped with her own personality and signatures. Piano numbers and quieter moments may recall Amos, with opener ‘Lillies’ seeing Khan channel Kate Bush as she solemnly recounts ‘the figure of a man / waving upon the hill’, but it’s when her creativity runs amok that she truly shines. It’s a defiantly modern album; the bustling electronic beats and shards of electric guitar on ‘All Your Gold’, ‘Oh Yeah’s hints of grimy hip hop and psychedelic fuzz, and the vocal effects on ‘A Wall’ all prove that her finger is very much on the pulse. Most interesting of all is ‘Marilyn’, a paean to the eponymous film star wrapped in woozy synths and a louche, 80’s vibe whose tripping drum patterns and textures are pure Jamie XX. It’s flirtatious, playful, and no surprise that it features Beck.
As wonderful as Khan’s lush, intoxicating dreamscapes are, the standout track remains ‘Laura’, the first single and a beautifully poignant piano ballad. Much like the accompanying video, it’s simple and powerful, laying bare her qualities as a composer – baleful horns and strings flit in and out – and writer. In fact, as much as her music – and influences – are often surgically dissected, scant regard is paid to her talent as a wordsmith. Whether lamenting ‘A heart from the past / that I cannot forget’, or how ‘I couldn’t sleep last night / In the suffocated air / I resolved to let you go’, her lyrics have a surefooted clarity; poetic yet clear, and never obtuse. Clever too, as searching for a lover is akin to ‘Waiting like a flower to open wide / I’m in bloom’, one of many references to nature, seemingly born of her need ‘to get to where the wild things roam’.
Listening to all eleven tracks sequentially, what’s most impressive is the way she pulls all these disparate elements into a unifying whole. Flowing beautifully, nothing seems out of place or forced, no small feat when you’re swinging from tribal beats and sparse incantations to a full on male choir (‘Horses Of The Sun’ to ‘Oh Yeah’). She’s talked in interviews of being more comfortable with who she is – coming of age, in a way – and ‘The Haunted Man’ is the musical equivalent; mature, grown up, and not afraid to address difficult issues. It’s also beautiful, daring, and captivating, the sound of pop’s dark heart carving out its own niche and cementing Khan’s status as one of our most inventive, ambitious artists.
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