Chelsea Wolfe, ‘Pain Is Beauty’ – Album Review
Accessibility is a tricky thing. It’s a valued commodity among music fans unwilling to spend more than a handful of listens to get a record, but in some circles, it’s (at times, rightfully) code for music that’s fleeting and disposable.
The idea of musicians bidding for accessibility in order to reach broader audiences has become a pop music cliche, but accessibility doesn’t always have to signal one of those two aforementioned extremes. An artist can evolve and become more approachable organically, simply by growing as a songwriter.
Chelsea Wolfe’s latest album, ‘Pain Is Beauty,’ is easily her most approachable record, but even though it contains some of her strongest compositions to date, its accessibility may be more a reflection of the changing expectations and tastes of modern music listeners than it is the result of an upswing in her abilities. Wolfe’s creative powers were fully-formed on her excellent sophomore LP, ‘Apokalypsis’ a record of noisy dirge-folk comprising elements of everything from jazz to metal to punk. Wolfe has since maintained a consistent level of quality — as well as the gothic atmosphere she established on her 2010 debut, ‘The Grime and The Glow’ — and on subsequent releases, she’s only incrementally adjusted her focus.
‘Pain Is Beauty’ is no different. Here, she incorporates modern electronics into her sound, as well a more straightforward pop sensibility. None of it compromises Wolfe’s approach, and in fact, when she does decide to stretch her legs with more exploratory tracks like ‘They’ll Clap When You’re Gone’ and the record’s breathtaking eight-minute finale, ‘The Waves Have Come,’ she’s able to blow her sound out to cosmic proportions.
For most of ‘Pain Is Beauty’ her focus is creating pop music, but not by conforming to verse-chorus-verse song structures. ‘Feral Love’ opens the record with a lonely, discordant guitar melody before slowly building into a wild, tribal free-for-all, like a violent Bats For Lashes. Wolfe’s pained voice swims beautifully through it all, before the track collapses back upon those isolated guitar plucks. ‘We Hit a Wall’ epitomizes Wolfe’s dirge-like tendencies, and atop an unwavering tom-drum march, piano, strings and guitar rise until the singer’s voice peaks at a breathless high.
It would be easy to oversell the role electronics play on ‘Pain Is Beauty.’ In most cases, they only serve to give Wolfe’s chamber-doom instrumental pallet a little more color, even if the album does feel more produced than her earlier material. On tracks like ‘House Of Metal’ and ‘The Warden,’ she goes so far as to add elements of dance music to the proceedings. The former sounds like Purity Ring-lite, with its subdued trap hats and dark, inverted rave textures, while ‘The Warden’ latches onto a jagged, darkwave synth arpeggio more akin to Crystal Castles than to the acidic folk musings of Wolfe’s earlier material.
Still, her Siouxsie Sioux-esque voice and ornate arrangements manage to make everything feel uniform and distinct — very much of a piece — as the record bounces between disparate ideas and styles.
The album doesn’t reach its transcendent heights until the final three tracks, which mark a high point in Wolfe’s career. ‘They’ll Clap When You’re Gone’ starts as a windswept acoustic number, Wolfe lurking in the shadows before some murky, apocalyptic strings slide into place. Drums finally drop onto the track, and it’s all heavenly, orchestral build the rest of the way, vocals lashing at the sky. ‘The Waves Have Come’ is an aching piano ballad that marches upward with near post-rock grandeur. And closer ‘Lone’ is a quiet, heartrending folk song until it explodes with the final massive onslaught of piano, guitar and strings.
The irony is that these tracks have the most in common with Chelsea Wolfe’s earliest material — their scope is simply greater. If ‘Pain Is Beauty’ proves to be Wolfe’s breakout moment, it’ll be truly earned. It’s the young songwriter’s fourth record, and it’s not the grand artistic departure that tends to get someone in her position noticed. Instead, it’s the sound of Wolfe figuring out how to retain the things that make her music so compelling and either streamlining them or, in the case of the record’s last trio of cuts, going as epic as possible with them. Both are effective, and ‘Pain Is Beauty’ is a breathtaking record.