Received Wisdom I:
Pain Is Beauty marks Chelsea Wolfe’s third full-length album in as many years. She followed her raw, sometimes harrowing 2011 breakthrough sophomore album Apokalypsis with Unknown Rooms in 2012, a collection of acoustic songs that she had been accumulating since the beginning of her career. Between Rooms and Pain, she also put out Prayer for the Unborn, an EP of re-imagined Rudimentary Peni songs.
Received Wisdom II:
Some of the material from Pain Is Beauty was culled from an aborted side project Wolfe was working on with bass player and writing partner Ben Chisholm. The side project was intended to showcase songs with electronic textures that Wolfe had initially felt were not a good fit for her solo project. Unlike previous albums that were self-recorded and self-produced, Pain was recorded by Lars Stalfors and produced by Chris Common (formerly of These Arms Are Snakes), resulting in a richer, cleaner-sounding record that was more intricately layered than Wolfe’s prior work. In this sense, Pain Is Beauty stands out as yet another stylistic break in a brief career that has already been characterized by several of them.
A Brief Disclaimer:
An adjective commonly used to describe (and, in some cases, to dismiss) Chelsea Wolfe’s music is “goth.” Her new album will do little to dispel this association. Its title, along with songs like “Destruction Makes the World Burn Brighter” and “They’ll Clap When You’re Gone,” reflect an appropriately morbid romanticism, and many of its sonic reference points are easy to trace among the branches of the style’s family tree. This is only as much of a problem as you allow it to be. As Wolfe herself points out, “There’s a lot of good goth music… to be grouped in with that is not a bad thing.”
Wolfe has promised us electronics, and electronics she delivers. “The Warden” wears its gothic disco pedigree on its sleeves, sporting a shimmering four-on-the-floor synth beat that still manages to convey an eerie languor. “Sick” ditches synth pop sleekness for pure medieval dread. Chisholm draws his notes out like the wails of some futuristic church organ, while Wolfe’s multi-tracked vocals create a one-woman choir. Halfway through, the dense, anxious layering of sound-on-sound becomes subsumed by a minimalist synth beat reminiscent of a stripped-down Oneohtrix Point Never, circa-Zones Without People. Other tracks attempt to fold electronic elements into more traditional compositions. Opening track “Feral Love” builds an incredibly tense atmosphere by contrasting a pummeling mechanical bass drum rhythm with a sparse pattern of jaundiced guitar notes, while the exquisite “House of Metal” creates a spellbinding marriage of the real and the synthetic by blending hazy synth washes and bleached, distended vocal samples with string loops and echoing xylophone figures. And still other songs allow analog instrumentation to take center stage entirely. See “Destruction…,”which provides a gloomy, rough-edged take on 1960s girl-group pop in the vein of Kids on a Crime Spree, or “They’ll Clap When You’re Gone,” in which Wolfe’s acoustic guitar acts as the axle around which the rest of the song turns.
As previously mentioned, Wolfe has gained a reputation for arranging her records around particular conceits (both instrumental or conceptual), yet song-by-song analyses reveals that individual tracks often bear little resemblance to the ones they share space with. Contrast, for instance, the delicate, almost naïve romanticism of “Tracks (Tall Bodies)” with the doomy, Sabbath-esque drone of “Pale on Pale;” or the folksy plea for serenity of “Flatlands” with the creeping, spectral “Boyfriend.” Even Prayer manages to swing from haunted folk to spiky post-punk to black metal dirge in the space of five songs. Chelsea Wolfe’s songs don’t often sound like they’re supposed to, and therefore they always sound exactly like Chelsea Wolfe.
A Heartfelt Confession:
This is my second attempt to write about Wolfe and her black arts. I was dissatisfied with my first foray, disappointed to see an EP that had spoken to me so readily and remained with me so tenaciously cataloged in such a lifeless manner, in a way that didn’t seem to convey any of the boundless enthusiasm that I felt for it or the artist who created it. I felt myself slipping into the same dull rituals and dead linguistic patterns for this album: dry factoids gleaned from press releases and interviews, empty descriptions of sounds that did nothing to convey how the damn thing actually made me feel. I find it difficult to convey just what it is that makes Wolfe’s work so compelling; it’s almost like there’s a magic there that dissipates when I try to put it into words.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. In an interview with Drunken Werewolf, Wolfe tried to explain the meaning behind her album’s title: “For me it sometimes represents a healing process. The new growth that happens in the forest after a fire. The same way in our lives — we go through the fire, we overcome, we grow stronger, wiser, and that to me is beautiful.” In an effort to expound upon her own album’s themes, Wolfe lands on a commonplace devoid of the enigmatic beauty that characterizes the work itself. Yet, with guitar in hand and voice unbound, she has little difficulty cutting to the heart of this central mystery of her album. “The pain forms a circle/ With a light at the center,” she sings on “The Waves Have Come,” and we can accept the truth of this statement, even though we may never be sure the truth we’ve gathered is the same as the one she meant to convey.
And so, if there’s one truth you can take away from all of these words, it’s that words alone can’t do justice to the dark pleasures offered by Chelsea Wolfe. It’s for each listener to enter the circle herself, to see if she can find the light at its center.