Pain is Beauty

Band: Chelsea Wolfe
Album: Pain is Beauty
Best song: “Ancestors, the Ancients”
Worst song: “The Waves Have Come”

I’ve mentioned this a billion times before, but I am not a person who cares particularly about lyrics. Certainly in comparison to vocal timber/strength/tone, I find the lyrics to solely give a vocalist a route to vocalize notes. This comes out in bands like the Sea and Cake, wherein the lyrics are immaterial to the sound or in artists like Cat Power, where I truly believe Chan Marshall could sing a grocery list and I’d love it.

Some of it is because the pop songwriting model often used bases itself on the joke about stupid people not appreciating poetry (“That shit doesn’t even rhyme!”). I’m done with love/above — and other overused cliché — diads. Elliott Smith and Ben Gibbard are lyricists I adore because their lyrics were written so well to the vocalists, but also because they were written in usable language. “For What Reason” is a favorite song of mine because it’s almost written like a letter.

Clichés can be comfortable, certainly, but I get tired of them. The ability to use every phrasing and everyday rhythms make for more interesting lyrics. English is a beautiful language and using just the few words that some idiot knows how to rhyme is a dereliction of duty for a writer.

There’s a Simpsons DVD commentary track — I know, I know, I reference that show a lot — wherein Josh Weinstein and Bill Oakley mention that a line written for Homer was beloved by the writers’ room because its simplicity was so perfect: “I feel bad about myself.” I don’t share their view of that line — it’s a good one, but not in my top 50 Simpsons lines — but I adore the notion that so many TV and movie lines fit the mood of the work so well.

I’m a big Wes Anderson fan — shut up — partially because he so perfectly uses dialogue that way. Some of that is his using Bill Murray to deliver said lines, but it’s also a way to simplify human emotion that hits the melancholy spot of human existence so well. When Murray’s shirtless character in Moonrise Kingdom says “I’m going to find a tree to chop down,” it so perfectly sums up his character’s emotion in the moment. Or When Sam tells Suzy “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about,” it is almost the film’s theme of young love boiled down to a sentence. Goddamn, Moonrise Kingdom is a great movie.

Similarly, Rushmore features my favorite Murray in an Anderson film line. Roughed up, Murray’s Mr. Blume character is approachd by Max and asked how he is doing.

“I’m a little bit lonely these days.”

It’s Blume’s version of “I feel bad about myself.” It’s self-loathing, but it’s pitiful and it works so well in the context of the rivalry with Max for Ms. Cross’ hand.

On a recent appearance on Conan O’Brien’s TBS show, warrior-philospher and world’s greatest human Louis CK explained the modern human condition in only a way that he can:

Underneath everything in your life, there’s that thing. The forever empty… Just that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone. It’s down there.

He went on to add one of the best, most brilliant things he’s ever said on a talk show or otherwise. It’s brilliant in its simplicity and it sums up the world as it is and not the world as a lot of people want it to be: “Life is tremendously sad.”

He played this — he is a comedian, of course — for laughs and it was all in the context of us wanting to be distracted from these basic facts about the futility of life by things like our smartphones and how it makes us into bad people. He’s right, but I think the main points — as outlined above — were probably lost somewhat on the audience. Louis CK is a dark comedian, but he’s brilliant and, most importantly, he’s correct.

Depending on how you count it, Pain is Beauty is Chelsea Wolfe’s fourth or fifth album. I’ve listened to it about 100 times and I can’t get a grasp on it in the way I was able to grasp Unkown Rooms and it didn’t hit me like Ἀποκάλυψις did (which was like an anvil in a cartoon).

That’s not to say it’s not as strong. It is and possibly stronger (more on that in a bit). Wolfe’s voice is so strong that it even buoys her interpretation of Rudimentary Peni songs or her cover of a record from a white supremacist convicted murderer. I’m completely in the tank for Wolfe and she transfixes me like no artist has done since I got into Nirvana as a kid.

Of all her releases, Pain is Beauty is no different in that it doesn’t follow the previous ones. The album begins with a mainstay of her performances — including a Daytrotter version that is superlative — in “Feral Love” and ends with a short contemplative number (“Lone”). In between is the span of Wolfe’s versions of 60s soul, electronic music and 4/4 stomp, all with the unmistakable idea that this is a Chelsea Wolfe record. She is unique.

Efficiency of language like the examples above is hard to come by in lyrics, though Wolfe is certainly adept at it. Her voice, like that of Chan Marshall, could make anything sound good, certainly, but “Tracks (Tall Bodies)” is an example of a well-written line repeated to become beautiful. Pain is Beauty is full of these lines, with “Feral Love” opening up the record in stark lyrical style, but “Sick” has the most lovely simple line I may have ever heard. Some of this is because I’ve never identified with a single line in a song so well. I don’t know if the line is indicative of the song and I know not the nature by which Wolfe wanted to portray her emotion in the song; there are songs surrounding love on Pain in Beauty, which could explain the song’s subject matter. This is all without import, because “Sick” has the simplest and loveliest line that echoes “Life is tremendously sad” and “I’m a little bit lonely these days.”

A little more than two minutes into “Sick,” over an atmospheric keyboard strain, Wolfe intones “I’m not the kind of sick that you can fix.” To say the lyric is strong is an understatement. As someone who’s struggled with depression — and I would add the suicide rate for people diagnosed with depression is a staggering 15% — the line explains the boulder-heavy feelings that come with disorders or personality types or whatever. More times than not, I feel as though I’m not the kind of sick that you can fix.

I don’t think depressed people or people dealing with depression are more in tune with anything or better artists or whatever. I, for example, am a terrible writer and conveyor of human emotion. There’s a common fallacy that great artists with drug/alcohol problems wouldn’t be the same without said drug/alcohol problems and that fallacy could likely be mirrored to people who are depressed (addicts are often depressed, by the way). Kurt Cobain’s tremendous sadness dotted his work (“All Apologies” and “Lithium” feature satire on the condition), but it was hardly the running theme in the wide array of great Nirvana songs. At Eternity’s Gate was not the only brilliant work that Vincent van Gogh produced. I don’t know that any — even mildly — mentally ill artist would be better had s/he been without his/her condition.

But, just as any community can identify with an artist’s inclusion in that community, I adore Chelsea Wolfe’s minor-key brilliance because I do identify with what I can glean from her music. I don’t know if she means to produce music that soundtracks depression — the scattering, the melancholy and the fits/starts of “Sick” hit this very well — but it certainly is how I interpret it.

Pain is Beauty is not only “Sick,” for certain. The album is, like Wolfe’s greatest work, mostly a series of renditions on a theme. Wolfe herself has mentioned that she thought a lot about the natural cycle of rebirth, leading to the title of the album’s most out-of-place song (musically). “Destruction Makes the World Burn Brighter” is the phrase affixed to the merch Wolfe sells in connection to the record and for good reason. The nature of the world is that of death and rebuilding, the theme that Wolfe examines throughout Pain is Beauty.

“Kings” recounts the medieval notion of the powerful, ending on a nihilistic lyrical note (“All is nothing. All is done. All is over.”), while “We Hit a Wall” specifically looks at romantic death and rebirth (Wolfe explains a bit in a video here). “The Warden” dances with an electronic beat and obtuse lyricism around destruction (“And when it turns the hole in my vision fills with you” is the chorus, for example). “The Waves Have Come” is the weakest song on the record and it’s still a singular drudge of a song, while “House Full of Metal” is intricately constructed — though not clinical — and features wonderfully romantic (and, I’m finding) wonderfully typical Wolfe lyricism in lines like “There’s an ocean inside your chest/we’ve been sleeping inside your head.” There’s a lot to say for an artist who can place a song she’s been playing for ages and the song fits perfectly with the record, but “Feral Love” is a masterpiece.

Juxtaposition and subverting of expectations can be a cheap trick (Hello, Joss Whedon!), but it’s also valuable in emphasizing the import of the message. “Destruction Makes the World Burn Brighter” shows that on two points.

First, to take a look at her, one would not think Wolfe someone who could pull off a 60s soul-rock song, but damned if “Destruction Makes the World Burn Brighter” doesn’t sound like it has evolved directly from the girl-group and Phil Spector stuff. A swinging guitar and easy compressed vocal sound like she should be singing about her “baby” or someone’s car.

Secondarily, the lyricism fits something that sounds more like the organ stings of “Feral Love.” With lyrics like “The face of the devil follows me” and the titular line that ends the second verse, there’s a black metal feeling to the song’s lyric. Wolfe’s ambiguity in her vocal diction — after looking at the lyric sheet of Ἀποκάλυψις, I was sur[rised how many words I misinterpreted — makes the song even sound more interesting. The “Who’s that girl?” of the chorus turns by the end of the song into “Use that gun” over a reread of the first verse, even putting forward the destruction and rebirth theme even further. It’s a wonderfully-constructed piece of wordplay and one which Wolfe pulls off with aplomb.

When can i die, when can I go?
When will I be free, when will i know?
When can I run – my legs are bound.
When can I go, when can I go?

“They’ll Clap When You’re Gone” is a meanderer in several parts reflecting on legacy while trapped. Wolfe opens the song singing of “the walls closing in,” while turning on the darkly romantic notion of “the only reason I stay is to care for you.” The song’s acoustic strum marches along, as though pushing some unknown plot, only to stop for the above chorus stanza. Wolfe’s questioning of the perceived situation fades only to go back to the acoustic guitar, only now with added atmospheric instrumentation (organ and strings, in order). The bouncing of the moving story and the rhetorical questioning is the structure and, because of it, the song succeeds.

I cannot emphasis it enough: Wolfe’s lyricism and vocal style fits her music as perfectly as I’ve heard in an artist. “They’ll Clap When You’re Gone” could easily be something of a mess; it’s nearly six minutes of a song that starts with an acoustic guitar and builds to feature a piano and string. Were it done by Bruce Springsteen, it would be my worst nightmare.

But it’s not. It’s a song that relies on a chorus of such existentialism and a movement that resolves itself. Emotionally, it’s so fulfilling and could only be solved by someone like Wolfe, whose voice is both tender and strong throughout.

Like “Kings,” the medieval mysticism of “Ancestors, the Ancients” harkens back to the visuals that have been so much a part of Wolfe’s persona since, at least, the video for “Mer.” The notions of familial spirit is evident throughout the song, with the calls upon opening the song to “release your dead” and the thoughts of “holy ancestors” sounding right after. But, the song moves within itself, recounting the internal brain of, presumably, Wolfe.

In my head there’s a war.
In the end it’s a horror.
Can’t help the chemical’s form.
In my head there’s a warrior.

It’s hard, for me, not to praise the vocal talents of Chelsea Wolfe at every turn; she is, by far, the vocalist I enjoy the most. Her cover of “I Let Love In” is worlds better than even the superlative original, solely because the song turns on its head when sung with a foreboding tone. Wolfe’s “The Modern Age” cover fills a similar space, albeit in a completely reworked format from The Strokes’ original.

Part of that is because Wolfe’s vocal style and range are so powerful, but part of it is her ability to milk emotion out of a single word (often turning monosyllabic words into stretched-out near-arias). In “Tracks (Tall Bodies)”, it’s the word “line” that doubles in syllables, while “world” turns into, well, it’s own world. “Ancestors, the Ancients” shows Wolfe at her stretching vocal best, with her emphasis on “war” filling the song with a foreboding that resolves itself in the next line.

And maybe that’s the turning point of the song itself. Wolfe begins the song — though the words aren’t on the lyric sheet — by repeating “I feel rapid,” before Bonham-eque drums descend onto the record. Like Ἀποκάλυψις‘s “Friedrichshain,” the song relies on its rhythm before it relies on Wolfe’s vocals. Needless to say, the drummer needs to be powerful to fill those spaces and Dylan Fuijoka’s tremendous talents fit that well.

But, again, lyrically, the song fits with “Sick” in a way that made me almost jump in triumph. The notion of an internal battle in one’s head is not something I’ve experience and I’m not one to try and demand that artists know everything they write (example: Sufjan Stevens making “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” sympathetic on his Illinois record). Which is to say, the fury within “Ancestors, the Ancients” is a musical version of a Game of Thrones battle scene; it humanizes the foreign and makes one sympathize. At its simplest, there’s a war, a warrior and a horror in the singer’s head, whatever those things mean. “Ancestors, the Ancients” could be interpreted many ways and each, in my experience, is magnificent.

As mentioned, I’ve listened to Pain is Beauty at least 100 times. It is a record that reveals itself in waves and it’s one that makes it such that my favorite Pain is Beauty track changes daily. It’s not tight as Ἀποκάλυψις, which both makes it as good and better, as it allows for such revelations and rethinkings. It’s got the qualities that my favorite work of art has; like DSOTM, there is no one way to listen to Pain is Beauty. I cannot recommend it, or Chelsea Wolfe’s music, enough.

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    I'm Ross Jordan Gianfortune. I am not a writer, but I sometimes write here about music and my life. I live in Washington, DC.

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