Bat For Lashes’ The Bride, released earlier this summer, begins with hope.
It’s an album about grief and the figure—the archetype, almost—of the bereaved bride. Its musical landscape speaks relentlessly of loneliness and absence—even its most exultant tracks sound sparse. Yet, as it combs through subtle shades and variations of its theme, it brings to life a story which so often ends with a ghost.
The hope that starts the album off is innocent, sentimental, rendered in the chalky pastels of a Cinderella adaptation from the early 60s. The music-box tones of “I Do” are rosily nostalgic before there’s really anything to look back to. The album’s central character is not yet aware that she is participating in an oft-repeated legend; she harbors the hopes that marriage plots are built around: with the magic words, “the sorrow will drop away.”
From all those cues of the fragile fairytale, the student of concept albums—of the cynical state of pop and rock music in general, really—might think (particularly knowing the album’s premise) that they know where this is going. This is the story of a bride who lost her fiancée to a freak accident on their wedding day, the early reviews tell us: we expect a shattering, a shock, a jarring disillusionment. But if you’re familiar with Natasha Khan’s earlier work, you know that that isn’t what she’s about.
Bat for Lashes is a project that is interested in the intangible—ghosts, dreams, memories, legends. 2012’s The Haunted Man explored the theme of haunting in all of its shades and meanings, from the account of a miraculous apparition in the opening “Lilies” to the tale of belief, grief, and ultimate release in the excellent bonus track “Daphne.” It is a work in which the audience careens through premonitions and flashbacks in a sparsely-furnished musical room where every word and sound is meticulously chosen.
The transition from the sweet, almost kitschily romantic “I Do” to the sincere yet spooky “Joe’s Dream” is a gradual one: the track comes in with synths reminiscent of an 80s power ballad, easing out the nostalgia with a shift to a different nostalgic era. Then the first graceful guitar chord breaks through with the mathematical roll of a wave in a physics lab. From that page-turn-like point forward, the album is not about idealized romance but events and people who could be real, and the dubiously-real, that is to say intangible, influences that surround them. As Natasha Khan’s translucent, pure voice narrates the groom-to-be’s prophetic dream, it is surrounded by otherworldly, hard-to-place sound; and by proxy, her characters appear as pawns of ambiguous forces: the imagery of “God’s searchlight,” the pleas of “don’t say goodbye” (standard and requited, but here, pointedly, futile).
Even the scene of the beloved’s death is softened, as if being remembered through a haze of trauma (or clairvoyance) as it happens. The choice to open the chorus–which describes the fatal accident–with the distant, almost denying lyric “What’s this I see?”, offset by glittering autoharp scales that recall a cartoon dream sequence more than a deadly crash, pulls a shimmering veil over the event itself. We seem to view his death through a crystal ball, distorted by time and subjectivity.
From there, the album moves forward with a progression that would make Elizabeth Kuhbler-Ross proud, but it also takes care to cement what is happening, on the most abstract level, to our star-crossed lovers: she is creating a story of the love she lost, while becoming a story herself. The album’s consistent suggestion of romantic and gothic (in the literary sense of both words) imagery coupled with the constant of Natasha’s ghostly register calls to mind your wedding-dressed apparitions, your weeping women of the canyons—as, in the fourth track “Honeymooning Alone”, she leaves the church lamenting the figure she’ll become in the surrounding crowd’s minds (“I’ll always be the girl who was denied”) she is already the stuff of legend.
The spectral folklore figure of the lonely bride is humanized and sympathized here—the very next track after the decision to honeymoon alone is the feverish “Sunday Love,” whose slow, tired, fragile vocal descants over, wrestles with, a beat and melody that feel as if they’re simmering on the edge of anger, and lyrics that lash out at a beautiful personification of love in its holy matrimonial guise. At the same time, The Bride’s central character is, to the end, unapologetically melancholy, and never in a way that’s convenient or picturesque. She is self-aware and maybe a bit resentful about the archetype she inhabits—the latter dynamic most evident in “Never Forgive the Angels,” where, in a booming, rolling dirge, she seems to forsake the haloed view of love and fate presented earlier on in the story. Still, again, innocence is unveiled rather than shattered—though the musical element is assertive and ominous, the overall tone suggests a line drawn in a negotiation more than a wholesale rebellion. That comes later, gradually, and not without a fight.
The spare, cinematic “Close Encounters” takes on the familiar theme of haunting most directly, with a refrain of “I go to the other side” and with it the confirmation of the Bride’s awareness that her unsevered connection to her dead beloved connects her with that which has claimed him: death, memory, and the unknown. As she goes deeper, we get the entirely-spoken lyric dream sequence of “Widow’s Peak” and the first literal invocation of the ghostly widow figure—this time as a separate entity that our heroine, who here names herself as Bride (not widow), tries to outrun. Subconsciously, she knows that to be fully alive she cannot remain this thoroughly entangled with a dead man and a ghost-story narrative of love and loss. She rages against the legend built around her and “dream[s] up a door” to escape through. In the next song—“Land’s End”, where over a chant-like repetition of a simple guitar strum strings wrench their way up like birds from the ashes—she resolves to “drive ‘til I set myself free.”
Natasha describes “If I Knew” as “the true love song of the album.” “True” is the operative word. Rid of her ties and illusions after “Widow’s Peak” and strengthened by her resolution and seeking of guidance in “Land’s End,” The Bride thanks her lost groom for his role in her self-discovery in a heartfelt anthem to honesty and forgiveness. His memory remains, and remains treasured; but the unrealistic, and ultimately incomplete, ideas of love and the divine have been stripped away and replaced with the things themselves in all their complexity. Dreams and fairytales and children’s ghost stories have provided her the door with which to escape from themselves—and like a grown-up Velveteen Rabbit, love has made her real.
“Wrong or right,
you held me up to the light.
The mountain had a mirror inside.”
Aside from “Land’s End,” which is sung in a sort of determined mutter, this is the first track which uses Natasha Khan’s natural belt range, resulting in a much fuller, warmer vocal. It also has one of the most prominent, simple, and memorable bass lines on the album, running beneath a steadily rising and falling piano rhythm that gives the song its heartbeat. The result is that the narrator/heroine sounds more grounded, more real, more alive. The widow of ghost stories is defeated, and in the process, transformed. The haunting groom is reconciled with, reassured, and finally freed.
And this is the real strength of this narrative: it resists the temptation to vilify the lost love, the spirit-soaked landscape, death, God, the universe. It’s not interested in condemning love as futile, but not interested in presenting it as the solution to all sadness either. What it truly celebrates is not love but truth, in all of its forms (including as a separate entity from fact or objective reality).
In that spirit, it refuses to hasten its narrative of grief—this is an album whose triumphant, cathartic track is a slow, throbbing ballad that begins “One of these nights, one of these days, I will love again.” “In Your Bed” ties off the story with the traveling Bride home at last, but again, there is a refusal to resolve: mention of a home, a bed, a child, quitting the party scene for a quiet life with a beloved spouse—is this a flash forward to years later with a new lover and an old scar, or a backslide on a bad day, fantasizing about the impossible? Maybe it’s both. The opening directly mimics “I Do,” but now the music-box synth bells are joined by lush, earthy guitars and the new more grounded vocal style. There has been an evolution rather than an about face. Whatever is happening here, happy endings are still in the cards.
The final track, “Clouds,” returns at first to haunted scarcity—another meditative, unfolding strand of tune on the guitar, another high, thin vocal (although this time, not alone—it is joined by the voice of a child). The setting is dim, domestic and overcast, permeated with the memories of the dead—now a familiar, unobtrusive, even comforting part of life. But midway through, the strong rolling-thunder bass that marks The Bride’s crystallization of identity in the climactic tracks returns, under an ecstatic—and I mean that in the religious way—swell of voice that speaks of rain (replenishment, resurrection) and “heavy grace.” We are left in a setting where the absence is still impossible to ignore—it is as cavernous as the spaces in the minimal soundscape—but it is accepted and even fertile. Clouds obscure, but rain brings growth.
Bat For Lashes’ The Bride ends with hope.