There’s an idea in literary theory that co-opts the philosophical notion of the concrete universal. The value of a poem, character, or story, it says, can be determined by the particular balance of how general and specific an entity it represents.
The remarkable thing about the music on the three albums of Bat For Lashes, the moniker of British musician Natasha Khan, is its melding of opposites. The songs simultaneously exist in the realm of the ancient and the new, the weird and the ordinary, and the grand and the intimate. And the even more remarkable thing is that seeing it embodied on the Regency Ballroom stage in front of an audience didn’t compromise these effects; it heightened them.
Entering a smoky stage set with lanterns in a costume of a shiny red dress and matching cape, Khan began to sing the album opener, “Lilies,” in a quiet but reverberating voice. Live as in the album, it was hard to determine how much of the otherworldly quality of her singing was due to added effects, but her magnetism, a consequence of both the force of her voice and her presence on stage, deemed that question beside the point.
As the songs built, with drums, a cello, pulsating bass, and synthesizers entering to create a layers of ethereal noise, Bat For Lashes’ captivating movements and controlled singing provided a strong focal point for the sweeping sound.
She never lost her audience during the journey along a spectrum of styles. In upbeat tunes such as, “Oh Yeah,” in which a surprisingly clubby backbeat motivated hip-heavy movement both onstage and in the crowd, you could picture that with a different singer and less eerie synth sounds, the music could be straight pop.
As is, though, it wouldn’t be the soundtrack to a dance club, but an occult celebration. The performance, then, resembled theater, and a fourth wall existed between the audience and the remote but captivating spectacle on stage (which did not deter the audience’s dancing).
On other songs like the gentle ballad, “Laura,” which Khan dedicated to her father, the wall came down. You could hear each intake of breath in a deeply personal song accompanied only by a piano.
Most songs, though, occupied a space that combined the poles of theatrics and intimacy. “Siren Song,” which began with the singer accompanying herself on the piano and built to an explosive chorus, exemplified the extremes. In the quiet opening, she sang, “Are you my family? / Can I stay with you a while? / Can I stop off in your bed tonight? / I could make you smile.” The prosaic verse spoke from the vulnerability of a single human narrator.
The chorus, though, which started, “Till the siren come calling, calling,” and included lofty words such as “evil,” “wickedness,” and “sin,” expanded the scope of the song to the sphere of mythology. Like many of the others, this one spanned the realms of ancient legend and the ordinary everyday.
In the melding together of such different scales, Bat For Lashes put on a show that was simultaneously entertaining and haunting. In the seven years that Bat For Lashes has been making music, she has developed a richness in her performance that reads like a well-rounded text. In each line of the show, the universality of myth and feeling crystallized into the concrete form of the enchanting performer. That balance is no small achievement.