“Til death do us part.”
The celebration of marriage—the consecration of two lives becoming forever intertwined—rarely comes without the acknowledgement that, one day, mere mortality will inevitably bring about its end. Death is very literally written into the vows and the ceremony, though that’s always seemingly too far off to be a dealbreaker. No marriage has outlasted the Grim Reaper to date, unless you’re a person of faith or belief in celestial oneness, or simply something more symbolic about love beyond the limits of our imperfect flesh vessels. After many decades together, growing old and waking up together, watching reruns and eating leftovers, it’s less of a shock. It’s no less sad when it happens, but from the outside, there’s at least a sense of closure, the end of the journey. It’s sad, but it’s not necessarily tragic.
The title character and narrator of Bat for Lashes‘ fourth album, The Bride, is given no such comfort or happily-ever-after ending. In the album’s third track and second single, “In God’s House,” Natasha Khan has a violent vision of her betrothed in a fiery wreck on his way to their wedding, set to an eerie backdrop of darkwave basslines, wedding-chapel Hammond and twinkling synths. “What’s this I see? My baby’s hands on the wheel,” she sings in a moment of ethereal pause, “What’s this I see? Fire…”
The Bride isn’t the first instance of Khan subverting romance with a tragic kind of situational irony. On “Glass,” the leadoff track from 2009′s Two Suns, the narrator discovers that her lover’s heart is a sun, forever blinding her, while that album’s “Daniel” put longing and loneliness into a more nostalgic context. Yet here, she’s crafted an entire album-length narrative, not unlike The Antlers’ Hospice or Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life, that intricately weaves together a thread of love and grieving, adding to a long canon of tragic romances from Tristan and Isolde to Titanic, rendered in eerily atmospheric tones and traces of Lynch and Badalamenti. It’s an album with a heavy pull on the heartstrings and a recommended listening time well after the sun’s gone down and everyone else has gone to bed.
As a work bound by an underlying concept, The Bride works best as a continuous piece of music, each track adding a new layer to the unfolding and increasingly emotionally affecting storyline. The plucks of harp that open leadoff track “I Do” are ironically hopeful, for instance, but it’s only one track later in “Joe’s Dream” that Khan’s bridal narrator expresses her own fears and uncertainty about the horrifying visions that plague her: “What does it mean? The bad things that I’ve seen.” Within this greater whole, however, certain highlights emerge, among them the transcendently unsettling “In God’s House,” the upbeat pulse of “Sunday Love,” and the gothic western noir of “Honeymooning Alone.” There’s an almost surreal darkness about these songs, their hazy and gorgeous layers of sound providing an unsettling score to the specter that occupies the bride’s empty seat and follows her as she self-flagellates on a trip planned for two.
Held against Khan’s previous two albums, Two Suns and 2012′s The Haunted Man, The Bride is more heavily composed of ballads. This is not a bad thing, of course, given Khan’s track record with stunners such as “Moon & Moon” and “Laura.” It does create a distinctive divide between the album’s two halves, however. The first half of the album, in which Khan’s Bride is plagued by dark visions and afflicted with the sudden grief of losing her fiancé in a violent wreck, is the one that features more pop songs. Its second half, however, is more about what happens next—understanding who she is without “Joe” and the slow march back toward living her life. He takes on the form of a “pale green light,” UFO-like in the gentle ambiance of “Close Encounters,” and she searches for freedom through distance and motion in “Land’s End.”
On vinyl, the album is split into four sides, and it’s within the final quadrant that The Bride finds hope. The starkly beautiful “If I Knew” finds renewal in loss (“I’m thankful for who you helped me find“), while the hypnotic pulse of “I Will Love Again” opens up the possibility of reopening a heart locked in mourning. “In Your Bed,” finally, sees her take comfort in an ambiguous place—whether it’s the bed of a new love or simply that of a fondly remembered fiancé isn’t that clear. Yet the gentle tones and big strings that close it out signal that, whomever shares the space, she’s found peace and acceptance. It feels like an ending, but there’s nothing necessarily final about it. It’s a beginning of a bright next chapter as much as it’s the end of a devastating one, a gothic fable rendered all the more affecting through the suggestion that death is not the end.