Despite being rightfully regarded as a mistress of darkness, Chelsea Wolfe is a more nuanced artist than her image suggests. The title Pain Is Beauty could be seen as a stereotypically gothy glorification of suffering, yet its songs explore how destruction and struggle encourage growth and change -- things that she embraces over the course of her fourth album. A shorthand description would be that she splits the difference between Apokalypsis' lo-fi fury and Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs' clarity, but once again, it's a little more complicated than that. Wolfe opts for a fuller-fledged sound than she did on Unknown Rooms in a more tempered and eclectic way than Apokalypsis delivered. With the help of Ben Chisholm and her other collaborators, she's free to go in virtually any direction she chooses, and she ends up choosing quite a few: Pain Is Beauty's electronic touches are the most obvious change, but even here Wolfe spans a range, from the subtle enhancements on "Feral Love" to more radical territory like the exquisite "Sick," which sounds like it begins in the heart of darkness with baroque, Wendy Carlos-esque synths and slowly makes its way toward the light. Meanwhile, "The Warden" tops a dance beat reminiscent of Zola Jesus or Chromatics with spooky dulcimers so effortlessly, it feels like they were meant to be together. Wolfe also flirts with rock on the alternately sweet and doomy "Destruction Makes the World Burn Brighter" and the tribal "Ancestors, the Ancients," and magnifies the more familiar acoustic territory of "The Waves Have Come" into the kind of sweeping epic that her voice was made to carry. Indeed, the remarkable mix of presence and ghostly atmosphere in Wolfe's vocals unites the many sounds she explores, grounding more ethereal tracks like "House of Metal"'s swooning chamber pop and leavening denser tracks such as "Kings," one of the few times that the album comes close to being overwrought. From many other artists, this vast scope and variety would sound unfocused, and to be fair, Pain Is Beauty isn't quite as cohesive as Wolfe's earlier albums. Regardless, it's exciting to hear her try so many new things and do them so well.
Pain Is Beauty Review
by Heather Phares