Singer-songwriters – as different from normal men and women – are terrifying things. When they’re not soliciting pity moaning about how life is mean to them, they’re peddling halfwit hippieisms (“The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind”, fucking hell.) They almost never have a sense of humour, and give terrible navel-gazing interviews. Worst of all, they tend to shun proper backing bands in favour of a lone acoustic guitar or piano. This just makes a bad deal worse: few things in the world are more skull-crushingly dull than a single person playing a single instrument for the entire length of an album.
There isn’t one good reason to endorse that lot. Iggy Pop would never talk about “the answer” blowing anywhere, wind or otherwise, because that makes the answer sound like underwear flapping on the clothesline. Iggy Pop understands that, because he’s a bona fide, hip-swinging, stage-diving, shit-breathing star.* A singer-songwriter, on the other hand, never would: this is because they have their priorities all wrong. While the rest of the world is content to start a band and work up a great fuck-off stomp to make the girls shake their bottoms, singer-songwriters want to play the minstrel, strumming on their planks and wheezing about loneliness, love, and other limp-wristed topics like that.
Bat for Lashes – who tried to pretend to be a group, until it became transparently evident that she was just a girl in her home studio – is the exception. She has two records; one of them is very good, the other is pretty bad, but that’s not the point. She’s a singer-songwriter in the truest sense: she operates all on her own, and writes about things that couldn’t possibly concern anyone else but her; she chases storytelling and self-expression and all the other trappings of the form, but – and here’s what’s special – she wins out in the end, because her imagination is louder than the idiom she uses.
Bat for Lashes’ records aren’t built around a solo performance. This means, unlike a Joni Mitchell or a Fiona Apple album, her voice and her instrument aren’t at the centre of things. She writes and arranges the way bands do, around a groove or a riff, over which she then smears synths and samples and all manner of digital bells and whistles. She’s not alone in her one-man approach, of course – heavyweights like Stevie Wonder were doing it in their sleep forty years before her, Panda Bear does it all the time now – but she brings it to a more personal, inward kind of music altogether. The fact that she hasn’t anything like Wonder’s technical chops actually works in her favour: it gives her music an awkward, intimate charm that easily compensates for the fact that she’s basically another girl who likes talking about herself.
Club this with striking good looks and a dramatic sense of fashion, and, while you may not get brilliant records, you have a brand new template for a 21st century artist. The money’s going out of the record business, but it’s easier than ever to make an album in your bedroom: someone like Bat for Lashes shows just how these things can be made to work out for the best. Home-made music is the new cock-rock: Tune-Yards does it best, but Bat for Lashes did it first.
A slightly different version of this post first appeared on Wild City on the 27th of September, earlier this year.
* – Someone I knew once met Iggy backstage, and claimed later that he “smelt from the mouth”. Even correcting for the non-English English, it would appear that Iggy was indeed “shit-breathing”.