An organ announces the opening of "The Hunger" with an austere, foreboding moan—before the drums kick in and invite you to dance.
That contrast, between the track's inherent dread and its pop veins, is the first sign that Lost Girls, the fifth offering from English artist Bat for Lashes, isn't meant for the faint of heart. "The Hunger," the album's second track, sounds like a cut from a John Hughes horror movie. Lost Girls is a concept album, which is Natasha Khan's specialty. It tells a story about love and power and the ways they intersect. The songwriting plays with metaphors of desire, addiction, and even murder and vampirism, but it's the album's artpop-horror production that gives the album its life. The choice to marry '80s-synth nostalgia to dark bass and palatial soundscaping is deliberate and effective: It turns Lost Girls into a metaphor about how love's comfort can come at an unforgiving price.
Bat for Lashes - The Hunger (Official Video) www.youtube.com
This level of conceptual craft, and the specific focus on love, is nothing new for Khan. Her last record, 2016's The Bride, unfolded a tragedy with a similar melding of the uncanny and the familiar. The record told the story of a woman who grieved the untimely death of the man she never married. Poring over Lost Girls' lyrics, as well as the mysterious Instagram videos Khan posted leading up to the album's release, reveals a narrative: A young woman, Nikki Pink, falls in love amidst a fantasy Los Angeles, while an encroaching girl-gang of possible vampires lurks in the background.
But Lost Girls is far more opaque than The Bride, which was a more straightforward exploration of love's toll. As Khan said herself in an interview: "[T]here are a lot of songs where I'm not trying to be arty, I'm not trying to make it deep and multi-layered." "Feel For You" and "Peach Sky" do the story-telling most acutely; they're windswept love songs with an ethereal electronica holding them down. "Vampires," the one track pointing most directly at the album's concept, is a purely instrumental track, sounding like a Smiths song that somehow got its hands on a saxophone during a desert vision quest.
It's the more revealing songs, though, that give Lost Girls its most dramatic beats. "Jasmine," a mostly spoken-word track about a femme fatale character hunting and murdering wayward men in the Hollywood Hills, is deliciously campy in its horror, its creepiness charged by Khan's lascivious vocals. And it's that sense of contrast between yearning lyricism and heady horror sounds that Lost Girls ends up featuring. "Kids in The Dark" is a sweet ode to love opening up parts of you that you thought long-dormant, while "Desert Man" is bordering on exhaustion with romance: "It's hard to get high with you / and not go low."
"So Good" and "Safe Tonight" are nicely paired to capture the dark and light sides of infatuation. "Safe Tonight" is about a gentle, healing love, a stark juxtaposition following "So Good," on which Nikki Pink struggles with the ways she's intoxicated by an abusive lover. The album's closer, "Mountains," grounds the album with a hymn to fears of abandonment, as it captures how the end of love can render entire landscapes unfamiliar.
Lost Girls doesn't reach the story-telling heights of its predecessor, but it's still an experimental portrayal of the ways love can take up space in one's life as both a gift and a trap. The horror angle, in an odd way, ends up being the safest way for Bat for Lashes to plumb those depths, in the way good horror films do: exploring familiar, painful humanity through the lens of an unfamiliar fear.