For the cover of her latest album, The Haunted Man, British chanteuse Natasha Khan (who performs as Bat For Lashes) stripped down completely. It’s a different take on female nudity from Christina Aguilera’s Lotus album art, which is altered almost beyond recognition casting the singer as a nude Venus. It doesn’t have the in-your-face sexuality of Rihanna’s Unapologetic, whose straight-ahead stare makes her exposed breasts into challenge. Khan has done something much more revolutionary and artistic.
Khan is seen completely nude, carrying the dead weight of a man on her back. The bracing black and white shot was done by photographer Ryan McGinley, one of the youngest photographers ever to have a solo exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. She presented herself without make-up, without airbrushing, without Photoshop — completely natural.
“Just to stand there and be naked and raw,” Khan told CBS Local. “Without having to sexualize yourself or have loads of lip gloss on and fake tan and be Photoshopped into this ridiculous image that women are supposed to aspire to, which I think has become so far from the truth. As a reaction to that I wanted to put forward something really wild.”
The raw minimalism of the cover art is meant to parallel the sound on her third studio album. Khan has stripped back her production and pushed forward her voice as a storyteller and lyricist, making a big departure from previous efforts steeped in mysticism and dance music. Where her previous album, Two Suns followed the storyline a romance set in New York City, where the singer was living at the time, The Haunted Mancomes from the countryside. Khan says she took inspiration from walking along the coast in Brighton and taking up gardening, which she did at Virginia Wolfe’s sister’s house — ultimately using the great outdoors as a muse that allowed her to tap into her romantic notions of nature and womanhood.
In discussing her favorite track on the album, “Lillies,” Khan says, “For me, when I hear it, it’s really the essence of being liberated and free and honest about how I’m feeling. For this album I wanted to celebrate the feeling of, I know I’ve got these things to release, but the feeling of being alive and hopeful and joyous [which] I think is quite exposing…This for me was like, ‘Wow, I’m this fertile woman and I’m really glad to be alive! All these things are going to come to me!’ I felt sensual and strong and confident when I was singing that song and I think it’s the real essence of some beauty inside which we all have. Celebrating that was really special.”
Along with nature, her own family history served as a source of inspiration. Khan describes the haunted man as someone every woman has been effected by in their own life and throughout history. As a point of reference she looked back into her own experiences and that of the women in her family.
“It was to do with my ancestry and looking back over the generations of my family, the male and female relationships and the kind of patterns that were trickling down,” Khan explained. “And how I felt, I guess, haunted or sometimes burdened by traumatized men. Or my relationship with the history and the archetype of the man. The haunted man crops up all over the album. Sometimes he’s someone I’m nurturing and nursing back to health. Or he’s a soldier that’s not returned from war. Or he’s someone who is going to give me children, or there’s a sexual, sensual haunted man as well. But it’s all about my relationship with him and I think in the end it’s about letting him go.”
She tackles being haunted by a man most directly in her current single, “All Your Gold,” by detailing a lifeless love affair with a “good man” who can’t break through her defenses because her affections are still tied up in a past relationship.
Khan doesn’t seem to realize that she has, in fact, let the haunted man go and brings women as characters to the forfront of her album more often than she ever has in the past. Where previously she would sing about herself, either in terms of a relationship or through veiled experiences, on The Haunted Man she uses “Marilyn” to bring out the ghost of Marilyn Monroe and by proxy old Hollywood, with which she is infatuated. One man does haunt that track: Beck. The singer/producer guests on “Marilyn,” playing what Khan refers to as “the kind of washy, shoegaze-y guitar sounds and some of the synths.” He, along with TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek joined her for what she describes as soundboard sessions. Khan used them to bounce ideas off of when she found herself stuck and as players when she needed to experiment. Khan used them as band members and companions when she felt alone in the endeavor of creating a new album.
Another track, “Laura,” tells the story of a tragic woman fallen from grace but what is very eye-grabbing about it is the video. Starring an aging drag queen named Lavinia, Kahn says she pulled inspiration from Opening Night, the 1977 film starring Gena Rowlands (The Notebook) as an actress who refuses to admit she’s aging. It’s unusual in an industry obsessed with youth. “I think there is something tragic and beautiful about older people and I don’t think they get represented that much in pop videos,” Khan says.
Her vision on The Haunted Man is grounded in fertility, romanticizing nature and the darker aspects of history. At times they don’t come together easily. It’s messy, it’s diverse and it’s unpredictable. It’s akin to mashing together Martha Stewart, The Joy of Sex and Jane Austen’s literary oeuvre into one conversation, but that is the dilemma any multifaceted woman faces. And The Haunted Man, in the end, is an album about women. Where Khan thinks she’s surrounded herself with men, she has actually brought forward the psyche of womankind.
The Haunted Man is out in the U.S. on October 22.
-Courtney E. Smith, CBS Local