By filling song-space with rusty industrial drone and icy love poems coated in needly reverb, the cellar-dwelling Californian, Chelsea Wolfe, has become one of the go-to occult rockers of the day. The music lurking on her 2010 long player, The Grime And The Glow, and its follow-up, Apokalypsis (2011), seemed to spring from the frozen moments on either side of a poltergeist encounter. Last year, her third release, Unknown Rooms: A Collection Of Acoustic Songs, found her taking an occasional solitary seat in the drawing room, considering the outside world through the window, though one foot was still safely stuck in the shadows. There is no direct thematic precursor to Pain Is Beauty, her fourth album and second on Sargent House. It’s a more glossed-up amalgam of all of her spooky stylistic elements, and an expansion of some of her lesser-utilized characteristics.
Some of Wolfe’s tinkering is troubling, like album opener Feral Love, which comes off as a pretty shameless bid for a teen vampire flick soundtrack. The song’s eerie jacket is nothing new for the singer/multi-instrumentalist, but its commercially streamlined structure and vapid lyrics that could be lifted from a pentagram-covered junior high poetry notebook are a step down for someone so proficient in creeping the hell out of her listeners. Things get only slightly better with the second song, We Hit A Wall. The repetitive chord progression and drum pattern are matched by the rigid vocal template throughout the track. House Of Metal marks a noticeable turning point on the record, and the majority of the remaining material functions at a much higher level. Wolfe is an intelligent artist, and the fact that the two most intellectually uninspiring moments on the album sit one-two on the lineup card gives the impression that she recognized their “single” potential, and decided to get them over with early on so she could get back to being weird. Shallow-wading rock jocks can get their fix in early, and swap to the next promo CD without taking up too much of their day. (Though this could be a label tracklist suggestion too, a tactic seasoned acts often wave the white flag at.)
Wolfe’s use of synthesizers, and their coupling with more conventional instrumentation, make for some of the strongest canvases on Pain Is Beauty. The loping low womp on the aforementioned House Of Metal is brushed beautifully by the layered synthetic violin work; and the mix of a miked drum kit and machined percussion—sometimes on the same track—works wonderfully. As a writer of music, she’s proven herself intensely creative, paring down the full palette of textures from her first two albums in favor of more basic musical elements, and the studio work she and co-producer/project bandmate Ben Chisholm have done is quite subtle in most places, leaving Wolfe’s melodies to fend for themselves. More often than not, they emerge victorious. The recording is actually so clear, that when Wolfe’s classic old-timey guitar strumming comes into play on Reins and Lone, it feels somewhat out of place, which is a shame, because it’s worked so well in the past. If the grainy treatment was simply scaled back on the other songs rather than done away with altogether, she’d be able to get away with the old saloon/metal shop aesthetic every now and again.
Her ever-echoey vocals, a ubiquitous trick in much of the indie world now, always seems appropriate in Wolfe’s dark world, though that means it takes some digging to unearth the meaning behind each song (or at least as much meaning as she wants to allow). Reading the words and listening to her voice, the lyrics within the context of the song seem to be two separate experiences Wolfe would like us to enjoy. Her singing on The Warden almost gives the song a dance feel. But reading words like, “The cold and the loud and they won’t let me sleep/I’ve been dragged on the floor and/my blood earns my keep,” surrounded by images of general disembodiment is pure Chelsea Wolfe terror. The makeup and red dress/death talk juxtaposition returns again on Destruction Makes the World Burn Brighter, when her greaser pop backing groove is sliced by the serial killer narrative. Over time, Wolfe’s evolved from the ghostly spirit in the Apokalypsis studio to a slicker kind of evildoer; not always one who goes out of her way to do harm, but one who’s conveniently in the wrong place when there is suffering to be had. Her character seems to be most effective when she conveys an intense internal torture as the result of a twisted love story. She hits hardest on this front with Sick (which is coincidentally the best song on the album): “I should be put to death for ever being cruel to you/you washed me clean like no one ever could…I’m not the kind of sick that you can fix/don’t you worry about me baby.”
Through haunting, Wolfe’s music has always had a strange redemptive quality, but she’s never crept as close to uplifting as she does on this album’s final long-form statement, The Waves Have Come. The volume swells gradually over the eight-and-a-half minute song, cresting like the monstrous waves of a natural disaster. It’s powerful and tastefully cinematic, and for once in her world there’s hope, though it’s naturally framed by apocalypse. The weight given to the song hints that there could be more of this kind of welcome exploration on future releases.
Wolfe has begun to pull herself out of the tunnel she was artistically birthed from. She created great music as an isolated, failed exorcism subject of sorts. But no one remains in the dark forever. If they do, it’s probably a show, and with Wolfe’s growing success, it’s hard to blame her for lightening up and branching out.