By Josh Flynn
If you are a longtime reader of 25 Years Later you probably found your way here due to a love of David Lynch. One of the best things about a love for an artist is where it leads you beyond the artist’s work. Maybe you discovered Ingmar Bergman because of David Lynch. Or maybe you started listening to Au Revoir Simone because you read they were his favorite band. One artist can be a life-changing map who leads you to new discoveries. Along the way you might find side trips—those newer artists also obsessing over the work, same as you.
For Chelsea Wolfe, the California-based musician who just released her sixth album, Birth of Violence, on Friday, Sept. 13, both Lynch and Bergman have influenced her songwriting. Bergman even gets a shout out on the new album during the song “Preface to a Dream Play”—“Ingmar/ you were right/ hell is on earth.”
Wolfe is an artist famously difficult to categorize. Her labels range from folk to gothic folk to doom folk to metal to punk and so on. None are wrong. She pulls influence from many styles and refuses to remain in one simple musical box. Birth of Violence feels like her most intimate work. Still, at times foreboding guitars underscore her lyrics or muddle her vocals as if to silence her.
Birth of Violence began with the word itself—violence. She thought it was a beautiful word for something so terrible, and when she looked it up in an old dictionary she discovered this meaning: strength of emotion.
Written on the road while touring for 2017’s Hiss Spun, the new songs reflect the loneliness of touring, the long drives between cities that leave your mind open to wandering and the dark places that can take you, and Wolfe’s general apprehension and unhappiness with the state of the country. The road even bookends the album, opening with urgency on “The Mother Road” as Wolfe searches for knowledge, for “goddess flesh.” “I want to learn how to swallow my pain,” she proclaims. It’s a personal journey spurred by being hurt by another. A search for power. As the music swells she urges “bloom and eclipse them. Wake up and transform.”
Listen: The Mother Road
There is a sort of violence that runs through each song: the act of transformation, death (from overdose, from gun violence, and even the rejection of death by the dead—”American Darkness” tells the story of a soldier visiting his wife from the afterlife), environmental destruction, and the emotional power of the singer.
“Deranged for Rock & Roll” isn’t a Joan Jett-style celebration of the genre but instead feels more like an abusive relationship. Wolfe got a late start to her music career, overcoming a fear of performing live that still rears its head at the beginning of a tour. “This ain’t the life I chose,” she sings—music is in her lineage, her father was a country musician. Rock and roll is a symbiotic relationship here, but it’s unsure how even the exchange is. “I am yours and you are mine,” Wolfe says, and it’s difficult to believe her. Despite claiming she is stronger now, the music feels like it is taking more than it is giving back. Deranged isn’t an effusive word like someone saying they are crazy about something. It’s a painful burden.
Listen: Deranged for Rock & Roll
The earth also plays heavily into the album’s themes. Wolfe sings of baptisms alongside rocks and water. And dirt. On “Erde,” German for earth, Wolfe repeats the word like a holy name. The song is apocalyptic, featuring waves of destruction, rivers on fire, buildings left behind and children running blind. It’s a nightmare premonition of the earth rebelling against its abusers. On “Dirt Universe” the earth becomes a place of exile, a place to cast sorrow away and rebuild. But in this place the nutrients seem dried up—”the tongue of silence/ it congeals and is voided”—there is no power here anymore. Nothing to regain. All that remains is the pain you bring to it.
By the end, Wolfe is still on the road, only now weary, having spent her energy on the stage. The Mother Road has become just another highway, taking her to another city. It’s not particularly a place she wants to be, but once again she doesn’t appear to have much choice. “Just can’t seem to keep me off this lost highway,” she sings.
As the album comes to a close, a storm washes over everything, a cleansing violence that perhaps clears the slate so Erde, and Wolfe, can heal.
With a new album out and a solo acoustic tour set to kick off in October (just in time for Halloween) with guest Ioanna Gika, now is a great time to explore Chelsea Wolfe’s music. If slow-tempo folk-influenced music isn’t your thing, just dig through her discography. Much like Lynch or Bergman you never know where Wolfe will take you.
Hiss Spun (2017, Sargent House)
You could call this Wolfe’s final evolution. However, we already know that isn’t true. With a heavy metal influence, Hiss Spun hits hard and fast. Everything comes together on this album and Wolfe feels free and unguarded.
Abyss (2015, Sargent House)
Abyss is a powerful industrial hellscape you can’t pull yourself away from once it begins. There’s a layer of noise underneath the music that makes it feel alive, squirming and desperate to break out and wrap around you.
Listen: Dragged Out
Pain is Beauty (2013, Sargent House)
Wolfe hits her stride and creates an album that lives up to its name. Pain is indeed beauty. It’s also a breakthrough as everything comes together for Wolfe. The album is near perfect and sets the stage for even grander works.
Listen: The Waves Have Come
Apokalypsis (2011, Pendu Sound Recording)
With an early punk rock feel, Wolfe sounds like she would be right at home at The Batcave in 1982 London. While still experimental and searching, Wolfe’s confidence gain is apparent, making for a solid sophomore effort.
Listen: Movie Screen
The Grime and the Glow (2010, Pendu Sound Recording)
Lo-fi and experimental, The Grime and the Glow shows an artist trying to find herself. Having tossed her first attempt at an album feeling it was too personal, this new attempt often feels guarded, but Wolfe can’t hide the talent crackling within her.
Listen: Gene Wilder