Bat For Lashes‘ Natasha Khan is one of this century’s most compelling, evocative and nuanced pop songwriters, but it’s been a long time since she’s shown much interest in making a proper pop record. Following 2012′s masterful The Haunted Man, Khan took a detour into gothic-tinged world psych, collaborating with the London band TOY to craft a globe-trotting exploration of acid-goth on 2015′s SEXWITCH debut. A year later, she stepped out of our own world briefly to craft The Bride, a weird and devastating concept album that feels more like one of David Lynch’s most hauntingly surreal movies than anything resembling the pop majesty of her masterpiece, 2009′s Two Suns. A soundtrack to UK TV show Requiem followed, and somehow eventually seven years had accumulated since Khan had delivered the kind of heart-wrenching, made-for-’80s-teen-movies art-pop epics that once defined her career.
Lost Girls, Bat For Lashes’ fifth album, is a long-awaited return to more romantic, anthemic Silver Screen shores, a mixture of playful pop hooks, nostalgic synth textures and a signature sense of mystery that give even Natasha Khan’s most immediate songs a deeper intrigue—as though what’s left unsaid speaks greater volumes than what’s sung out loud. It is, in many ways, the inverse of The Bride; where that album placed the whole much higher than the sum of its parts, save for a few key highlights such as “In God’s House” and “Sunday Love,” this one feels more like a string of highlights, each one brimming with moments rife for karaoke mugging or awkward teenage mixtape courtship. It’s also on the whole a good 10 minutes shorter, delivering quick hits of adrenaline and endorphins with each track change.
As with Two Suns, whose narrative followed the fictional Pearl, and The Bride, which told a story of grief and healing through its titular protagonist, Lost Girls also finds its muse in a central character, Nikki Pink, leader of a motorcycle gang. The choice of “Pink” as her name feels intentional here, each song glowing with bright neon hues as if to mirror the sight of Instagram sunsets in Khan’s newly adopted home of Los Angeles, or in the ’80s popular culture that seeps through these 10 tracks. Not that it’s the first time Bat For Lashes has drunk from that well—her incredible 2009 single “Daniel” was heavily inspired by The Karate Kid, and several highlights on The Haunted Man felt tailored for a John Hughes film soundtrack. Ultimately, though, these songs are more about mood than plot, about feeling more than character studies. If Nikki Pink is the persona that Khan adopts when creating these songs, it’s still Bat For Lashes that we hear in the finished product—a permutation of Bat For Lashes that manages to balance instant gratification with atmosphere and subtlety.
There’s an immediacy to many of the songs on Lost Girls that’s charming, Khan sometimes letting a hook be what it is rather than overstuff a song with evocative lyrics (which, to be fair, there are plenty of here). “Feel For You” consists of little more than its title phrase, an expression of uncomplicated infatuation summarized in just three words. “So Good” isn’t quite so minimal, juxtaposing Mellencamp’s words (“hurts so good“) over production that evokes vintage Madonna proves more endearing than goofy. Sometimes words aren’t even necessary at all, as on “Vampires,” which pairs a saxophone with gothic rock in the vein of early The Cure. Yet when Khan stretches out and gives herself the space to fill in the gaps, what results is more of the kind of magic that defined early singles such as “Daniel” or “What’s A Girl To Do?” “The Hunger” is one such track, a gorgeously epic pop single rich in slap bass and magenta-washed synth hues, finding conflict between youthful daredevil recklessness and the allure of what could be a real love: “‘Cause it’s our blood/And it fills up the sky/Off the bridges we fly/Can we keep us alive?”
Bat For Lashes rarely makes anything less than a big statement with each of her releases—even the one-off side projects—and Lost Girls is not an exception. In some respects it feels like a paring down; the songs are shorter, the concept a bit less cosmic or emotionally overwhelming, but the final product remains grand, a rich headphone experience as much as it is a backdrop for some particularly elaborate daydreams. But what’s here is essentially what’s in a lot of great pop albums: romance, nostalgia, and a coming-of-age narrative that Khan’s internalized from a well-curated VHS collection. It also has another thing that every great pop album requires, which is great songs. For an artist whose career to date has comprised intricately crafted breakout art-pop albums that feel almost supernatural, it’s refreshing to hear her embrace pop music with her eyes toward the stars but both feet on the ground.