Sargent House’s steadfast goth goddess Chelsea Wolfe goes intimately acoustic on her 6th album, Birth of Violence, retreating to her scarcely-lived-in home to record in the Northern California wilderness and departing from the densely churning bombast of 2017’s punishing Hiss Spun, instead snapping back to the acoustic equilibrium of her earliest days; nonetheless she keeps the intensity high and the emotion dialed in. The sounds are lonely, but the solitude is self-sought, a comfort and a relief rather than a foreboding sentence or oppressive yoke that requires shedding.
Throughout her entire career up until Hiss Spun, Wolfe felt decidedly androgynous. Then, at the dawn of her 30’s, she found herself embracing and embodying her feminine energy, simultaneously becoming aware of and sensitively attuned to the challenges of navigating the world as a woman. The fight, at this point, shifts. Instead of the fire-burning street-taking bloodlust of your 20’s, the fight in your 30’s feels seated deeper in the belly. Birth of Violence feels like it’s about that fight: finding strength, power and will, and rising up to exert it all in the face of unending victimization and marginalization. Wolfe draws parallels between the treatment of women throughout history and the treatment and disregard of Mother Earth, also in the throes of shaking off her human oppressors.
The central theme is best represented on third single “Be All Things,” about “balancing the warrior and the goddess, and wanting to be everything and nothing at the same time,” Wolfe revealed in a press release. “Some days I want to be quiet and reach my roots into the earth, and some days I want to spring up from the ground and be all things.” A finger-picked acoustic guitar anchors this track, quiet and contemplative as a sacred incantation. The vocals sound like upper-register cello swells until Wolfe hits her “s”-es, and the chorus perfectly distills its message: “I cannot stop / I want to be all things / I’ve got to let go / I want to be all things.”
The songs took shape on the long drives between cities while on the road. After eight years of steady touring behind five albums, Wolfe had a strong compulsion to take a break and make her way home, and to capture the introspective album that had been brewing in her while the “mercury was in her hands,” to paraphrase how her friend Billy Corgan put it, commenting on the importance of following the muse when it presents itself and writing songs when the inspiration strikes. This contributed to her decision to exit the road and get these songs recorded, which she did at home in her remote Northern California refuge, in a bid to reclaim herself, mark her territory and find herself, as an act of self-care.
“Mother Road,” a nod to Route 66, references the growing exhaustion of being out there on the road, but her classic tour song is actually “Highway,” which is the only one on the album that sounds acoustically strummed like a singer-songwriter, in the vein of her influences and predecessors like Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks and Bonnie Raitt. “Highway,” like all of the tracks, feels lonely, this one conjuring desolate late-night roads. From the press release, “Mother Road” represents “a defiant stance against the destructive and controlling forces of a greedy and hostile patriarchy.” Earnest and emotive, Wolfe’s partially-clenched throat sings of “Building a broken but precious web / Like a spider in Chernobyl” in Verse 2 before swooping strings join the spare vocal track and acoustic guitar recalling Yo-Yo Ma’s most chilling “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” passages to deliver the gut-punch, “I do not have a child / But I’m old enough to know some pain / And I’m hell-bent on loving you / Women know what it is to endure” while a thrilling tom beat and lush strings build and swell over the emotional apex of the song, the closing Bridge “Bloom and eclipse them, wake up and transform.” Wolfe certainly claims her power on this track.
The loneliness takes a different form on the title track, the loneliest song on the album, less deserted highway than pitch black cave through which Wolfe’s moody low-pitched vocals echo and drift. The song begins with the faintest of sonic vibrations for the first thirty seconds or so before breathy echoing vocals carry the track through to the chorus, approaching the 2 minute mark. Wolfe’s voice opens up for the outro, ascending to soprano coos with a final thirty seconds of dissonant vocal harmonies; all 4 minutes and 20 seconds, magical.
The album’s title suggests metaphorical violence, a poetic re-appropriation of a brutal, distinctly anti-feminine concept by a solely feminine means, and it’s no accident that the album’s singular moment of actual violence comes from “Little Grave,” its heartbreaking finger-picked guitar and angelic requiem soprano vocals about a victim of a school shooting, capturing the gutted emotional wreckage.
The cover artwork calls to mind Joan of Arc, featuring Wolfe dressed in a self-styled pagan baptismal gown. Wolfe tells New Noise that she was baptized multiple times into different religions throughout her life, but she never really felt like she belonged until she found nature, paganism and witchcraft. “When I moved on to being just kind of more pagan, I wanted to be baptized in nature. I wanted to have my own sort of ritual in nature.” So she had her own pagan ritual baptism and took the dress to Iceland for the album’s photo shoot. “We were sent to this spot that had this ancient crater,” she continued. “There’s this steam coming out of the ground, and by the end of the photoshoot, I was basically soaking wet with steam from the Earth. So, that was also kind of like a nature baptism.”
Wolfe’s paganism takes a central focus on the music video for second single “American Darkness,” which according to a press release was “inspired by the Paul Thomas Anderson film Magnolia, where in one montage the separated characters sing along to ‘Wise Up’ by Aimee Mann,” while “exploring this through the lens of Tarot.” As Wolfe says, “”I played both The Fool and The High Priestess cards in the video, to embody both the beginning of the journey, and the realization that the sacred knowledge I was seeking was inside me all along.” The track fully commits to the album’s thematic loneliness, opening with the arresting affect of a lone voice surprised to discover an atmosphere on an as-yet-unexplored planet, with amiable piano chords and gentle shuffling drums peeking over the acoustic strums and breathy vocals on the final chorus.
Wolfe also references her religious past two songs later with “All these years / Have made me strong / Three baptisms / For this soiled dove” during the third verse of the one aberration among all of the acoustic stylings, “Deranged for Rock & Roll,” which revs up the whole album momentarily and contrasts the surrounding songs like an infinite chorus locked in a sweaty hair-flying guitar-neck-crossing breakdown. All who share Wolfe’s calling are spoken for in Verse 2 when she sings, “Starlit / Big mood / Don’t get me started / This ain’t the life I chose / It was waiting there / For me to call / Now I’m on this train / I hear it rollin’ on.”
Photo credit: John Crawford