The UK experimental pop genius makes one hell of an Australian debut
Natasha Khan has released two albums as Bat For Lashes: the Nico-meets-Joni Mitchell Fur and Gold and the expansive dream-pop saga Two Suns. Both are strong albums, and are often compared to Kate Bush and Björk, the high-watermarks of eccentric female singer-songwriters. If Khan's performance as part of the Vivid Festival is our yardstick, these comparisons are completely inappropriate: she has earned her place in that pantheon of performers.
As with those two artists, there's a pagan whimsy to Khan's performance that would strike some as pretentious or twee: a video duet sung with Pearl, Khan's alter-ego on the loosely conceptual Two Suns, and a literal chain of bells Khan dances around with. But those with a taste for the melodramatic were well sated.
The set drew equally from Khan's two albums – perhaps a concession to the fact that this was Khan's Australian debut, not just her Two Suns tour. From soaring opener Glass to the brooding Trophy, Khan's voice was astonishing, with a depth that I've not heard captured on her records or live EPs.
The Opera House often struggles with rock and pop shows – Alison Goldfrapp spent her 2008 performance there glaring at the poor sound engineer – but Saturday's mix was perfect, falling just the right side of cacophonous. Compared to her live performance, her albums sound as flat as an inland lagoon. Each song was rearranged, bolstered by extra drum patterns, synth lines and string sections. Khan used a surprising amount of pre-recorded material, but never relied on it: her backing band included percussionist Sarah Jones, who played with precision and fury, and Charlotte Hatherley, Ash's former axe-woman, on piano and guitars.
Khan had bought a string quartet along for the ride, who had very little to do – until the encore. As a Vivid Festival special, Khan performed a clutch of covers from the likes of Radiohead, The Cure, and Depeche Mode, as well as a version of her own early track Howl. I'd like to see more artists take this approach, using the encore as a little bonus performance to try something different, rather than the point at which to trot out their Big Single.
The word “revelation” is often misused in reviews, but Khan's performance was truly such a thing: “so that's what she was trying to do,” I realised at several points, and wandered home with a much better understanding and appreciation of her catalogue.