In a child’s eyes, hidden and forbidden spaces simultaneously produce both the effect of a chilling desolation that slips underneath one’s skin, preventing movement and action, and the effect of a comforting warmth of secrecy and solitude, the sovereignty of the enclosed individual. In these moments of silence, emptiness, and foggy mystique, drifting in a Stygian odyssey, the unknown makes itself (un)known. It is in this atmosphere that Chelsea Wolfe’s latest album Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs exists. The album is an abandoned house filled with rooms as songs, holding phantom voices singing in ethereal keys in an uncanny language that’s entirely pre-linguistic/symbolic and attempts to charter a path to unknown sensations and ecstasies. As Wolfe stated, “I am interested in revealing the beauty in the darkness of things.” The song-rooms are composed of silent isolation and unbearable intimacy, the reverberations of sound waves crashing into walls of a room filled with dust and cobwebs. While the album is entirely encased in a distinctly dark shadow emblematic of the sound of “doom folk” that critics have cast over Wolfe’s work, what is particularly interesting with Unknown Rooms is its ability to connect moments of despair and desolation with the attempt to reconcile the mystery of one’s history/rooms with the hope and desire to be naked — tabula rasa — in order to find ways to reconnect or to finally connect (“I want flatlands/ I want simplicity/ …I want flatlands/ Will you go there with me”).
This is a sparse album, Chelsea Wolfe’s quietest, most beautiful album to date, showcasing a vulnerability that simultaneously pushes the listener’s comfort level to its limits and is sincerely inviting in its simplicity. Unlike last year’s Apokalypsis, which had its moments of anarchic liveliness and heightened motions and speeds (“Demons”), Unknown Rooms is entirely built on pure rests and negative space, the nerve-racking space of silence. Everything on the album sounds and feels distant, as if the sounds are emanating from the other end of a dark eternal hallway. “When it’s said in the dark and you know it’s always there” (“Flatlands”). Dying dreams and tormented memories haunt the album’s isolation. Its closer, “Sunstorm,” ends with Wolfe’s restless voice repeating “I remember everything you said” until her voice fades into silence, overwhelmed by the out-of-tune piano’s staccato hits. This brings up a motif that appears in all of the song-rooms of Unknown Rooms: the dissolution of the voice. On “Spinning Centers,” Wolfe’s voice intertwines with the strings, creating a space of gray indiscernibility where the voices and strings dissolve into a floating specter. Her voice is of breath, not speech. While spoken with words, Wolfe’s voice is made un-familiar — that is to say, the voice becomes a stranger that’s not of the family (un-familiar). The family barricades the doors of these Unknown Rooms, nailing these strangers shut, in order for the family to cover up their own finitude and indefinite nature. On both “Sunstorms” and “Our Work Was Good,” Wolfe’s voice is not speaking, but is instead composed of pure expression, swerving in and out of repetition.
While Unknown Rooms is born from the desolation of the individual, the song-rooms attempt to piece together fragments — “I only dream of you after you are gone” (“The Way We Used To”) — and expand one’s body into another’s arms, flesh, or bark: “I need your arms wrapped hard around me/ I want open plains and scattered trees” (“Flatlands”). The song-room’s lamentations (sounds “said in the dark”) are formless matter that enables an unfettering of one’s body (“When it’s there in your heart in your mind you set it free”). Unlike Apokalypsis, which trapped its listeners to a dark abyss, Unknown Rooms looks for an exit: “I want flower fields/ I want salty seas/ I want flatlands soft and steady breeze/ bringing scents of lined-up orchard trees/ Dripping heavy with pears and dancing leaves.” Wolfe looks for a sincere connection to the non-human, or rather pre-human world, through a thorough investigation of “unknown rooms” of the lived spaces we have built for ourselves, built spaces/faces as T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock spoke of, “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” On the cover, Wolfe is covering her face, ashamed of the face that centralizes and constructs subjectivity. Taking a step beyond Apokalypsis and its black/white eyes, Unknown Rooms effaces, leaving us with a white wall of indiscernibility that is Wolfe’s skin, opening the listener’s expanse beyond “money and all its friends” and toward flatlands and simplicity.