Pearl and Natasha are both part of Natasha Khan, at war within her and at war with what constrains them: decorum, lust, success, an ebbless need for more. Bat for Lashes’ second long-player, Two Suns is a concept album born of songstress Khan’s classic good-girl/bad-girl struggle, which she pits as the battle of either/or. In the press materials, Khan — who is Bat for Lashes — framed Pearl as the brassy blonde alter ego she would occasionally try on for size, wig and all. The way she describes platinum Pearl, you imagine her in a corner booth, laughing too loud too long, a renegade Next Gen character who wouldn’t be out of place in the chorus of Billy Joel’s “Big Shot.”
As much as Khan may paint Pearl as the foil to Natasha, Pearl is the better canvas; her highs are towering, her lows are a strain of shame foreign to no girl. Pearl gets the better songs. She may be sad (pathetic), but Natasha’s sadness is a pall that often gets dialed to “dirge,” whereas Pearl’s tunes are remix-ready. Ditching the gothy doo-wop orchestrals of Lashes’ debut — the sha-la-la has been phased out in lieu of a ghosty Technicolor new-wave wallop, with Khan’s voice soaring and confident, demanding our attention. Early-/mid-’80s Kate Bush is the easy reference; they are both female solo artists with big, gorgeous vision — plus all the high-drama piano, that unmistakable air of English restraint being loosed.
What defines, and separates, Natasha and Pearl is how far they are willing to go for a man’s love, for success. Pearl sounds like she knows the patriarchy’s score, she aims for proximity to power. To ensure her place in an unsteady world, she warms a bed. Love is ephemeral, holding a man’s attention, being a magnet of desire is the game, and Pearl is in it to win it.
But rather than asking us to judge the patriarchy, Khan asks us to judge the woman subjugated by it.
Natasha, whether she is the “real” Natasha — the biographical Khan — or the decidedly unreal version presented in the video for “Pearl’s Dream,” lithe wizard girl in a bewigged Margiela unitard (avec wolf companion — so very Natty Gann) flying in a fog, for all her space magic, she wants all earthly comforts. The irony is that her need is just as needy as Pearl’s, ’cept she wants a home, a son and something that sounds a lot like you-’n’-me-forever romantic love. Natasha is more grounded, but, strangely, a lot of her action takes place in dreams and fantasy worlds (“Good Love”).
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Natasha is satiable. Pearl is insatiable. Natasha’s songs are often plodding. She sounds like a woman on the shore, calling for the sea to return her innocence to her. On “Travelling Woman,” Natasha seems to sing to Pearl, warning her, “Don’t sacrifice your plan” to a man, to a soul-sucking force: “All the pretty faces and sorry words/Can take away your pride.” She repeats “It’ll make you tired” three times — and she sounds it — beleaguered and weary by all that dazzles Pearl. When Natasha shows up, often, so does the word sorrow. Natasha may have some enlightened hindsight (“Peace of Mind”), but she’s a fucking downer.
Bat for Lashes performs at El Rey Theatre on Tuesday, June 16.