Autry Rene Fulbright is an Austin-based music lover who performs and writes with the bands Midnight Masses and …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead.
“Don’t be ashamed to weep; ’tis right to grieve. Tears are only water, and flowers, trees, and fruit cannot grow without water. But there must be sunlight also. A wounded heart will heal in time, and when it does, the memory and love of our lost ones is sealed inside to comfort us.”
These words, from English author Brian Jacques’ 2001 nature fantasy novel The Taggerung, capture the essence of Pain Is Beauty, the fourth album by Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe. Wolfe refers to this album as her “love letter to nature.” But rather than simply conjure up the beauty, wonder, and magic of the Great Outdoors, she chooses to embrace its fragility, brutality, honesty, and ugliness.
The production is a far cry from last year’s Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs: the electronic arrangements here (by Wolfe with co-producer and bassist/keyboard player Ben Chisholm, along with guitarist Kevin Dockter and drummer Dylan Fujioka) are reminiscent of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Philip Glass, Suicide, Throbbing Gristle, and early Nine Inch Nails. The instrumentation is bigger, less organic, and yet it manages to evoke the sounds of nature. The beautiful, strong-yet-fragile quality of Chelsea’s pleading voice reveals a certain desperation, madness, and longing, like a feral child or a rabid animal, to be observed with awe and more than just a little caution. The album sounds like a walk through the woods turned suddenly and irreversibly perilous. It lurches, it lunges, it dances through the trees and towards the sky. It scrapes, denies, seduces, warns and occasionally wounds the listener to devastatingly beautiful effect.
Pain Is Beauty summons up some very vivid imagery. The repetitive rhythms throughout, starting with opener “Feral Love,” coupled with the abrasive and jarring electronic sounds, perfectly captures the cycle of life and death. It gives a clear image of a small and beautiful yet diseased creature. “House of Metal” conjures up a decrepit and decayed mansion; overrun with rats and ivy, moonlight bathing a young girl who dances with the ghosts of dreams past. Wolfe seems to mourn and celebrate pain in almost equal measure. With its somewhat by-the-numbers EDM, “The Warden” harks back to her 2011 album Apokalypsis , but with her emotive voice gliding over the music, it’s just too pleasing to the ear to be deemed a step backwards. She’s set the bar high for herself, by turns overcoming, acknowledging, and challenging her own past work.
Next is “Destruction Makes the World Burn Brighter,” a tasteful, unique take on the girl group sounds of the ’60s that’s so sweetly abrasive that it’s not just an homage to Phil Spector ― you can almost feel specters, as if go-go dancing ghouls are haunting their own high school mass murder scene. “Sick” is the perfect song for a weary body coming down from the trials and tribulations of life and love, ready to cross over to the other side, with both heaven and hell vying for its soul.
True to the title, Pain Is Beauty explores pleasure and pain throughout. The grandiose, occasionally woozy feel of the nearly nine-minute “The Waves Have Come” conveys the unsettling feeling of being lost at sea, but it could also be the soundtrack to someone diving into the boundless beauty of the ocean, or perhaps spreading the ashes of a lost love. The album ends with the aptly titled “Lone,” which opens like an outtake from Unknown Rooms…, gorgeous and spare, with acoustic guitar and Wolfe’s voice, only to jar one last time with the serrated edge of an electric guitar.
Pain Is Beauty is a world of love, beauty, and sadness that seems familiar, yet remains distinctly Wolfe’s own vision. So beautifully capturing the sounds of the earth with largely electronic elements is an impressive feat. Chelsea Wolfe is truly a force of nature.