As Kurt Cobain famously alluded when he sang that teenage angst had served him well, popular music has conditioned us to interpret certain expressions of emotional distress through an adolescent lens. Genre-bending singer/songwriter Chelsea Wolfe has been giving audiences an alternate vantage point since her career got off the ground at the start of this decade. Wolfe has always had a way of dignifying moods that we might otherwise refer to (with a touch of condescension) as “brooding.” But with her sixth album Birth of Violence, she makes her most convincing statement to date, reminding us once again that angst is not the exclusive province of young adults.
Where so much of the so-called darkness in music falls into the realm of stylized affectation, Wolfe’s presentation doesn’t allow for one-dimensional readings and doesn’t fall prey to self-parody. She has always shown keen awareness in her portrayals of emotional states like apprehension and grief. On Birth of Violence, though, woundedness becomes a launching pad for regeneration just as Wolfe’s musical vocabulary seems to be gelling more than ever before.
The first five tracks on Wolfe’s 2010 debut, The Grime and the Glow, more or less contain the full range of musical ingredients she likes to draw from: folk, electronic production and doom metal with splashes of goth and twang. On her last two albums, 2015’s Abyss and 2017’s Hiss Spun, Wolfe plunged head-first into the metallic end of the pool by cranking the distortion for searing guitar parts that engulfed the arrangements like thick streams of molten lava. By contrast, the first thing that strikes you about Birth of Violence is the absence of guitar distortion. This time, Wolfe’s acoustic re-enters the spotlight, and with it the near-overwhelming presence of a space that permeates the record and houses its many rewards.
Much like the sensation of sitting alone in a room with your own thoughts, Birth of Violence doesn’t allow you to headbang your way through the realizations that surface in the lyrics—which makes sense given that the new material represents a conscious retreat from both the psychological exhaustion of touring and from writing songs with a full band in mind. That said, Wolfe’s writing has grown tremendously since her 2012 acoustic compilation album Unknown Rooms. Though Unknown Rooms prominently features post-production, that album’s songs hewed much more faithfully to the spirit of a solo-acoustic performance or, perhaps, a set of demos.
Conversely, even though Wolfe stripped down her arrangements on Birth of Violence, longtime collaborator Ben Chisholm’s production touches foster an atmosphere that’s as immersive as, say, classic Pink Floyd—a vibe that serves this material well. Chisholm drapes the siren-like wail that introduces “When Anger Turns to Honey” in a ghostly echo so that it sounds like a theremin at first (and basically fulfills the same role as one throughout the rest of the song). On just about every track, trails of reverb rise off the main instrumental parts like wisps of fog over a haunted landscape. And though Birth of Violence is certainly less “heavy” from an electric guitarist’s perspective, it is in so many ways heavier than anything Wolfe has done to date.
For all the ambience and genre-juggling we’ve come to expect from Wolfe, her songwriting takes center stage here. At heart, Birth of Violence is a collection of songs, and Wolfe shows a level of tunefulness and craft unlike anything she’s given us in the past. For the Fleetwood Mac-esque hook on opening track “The Mother Road,” Wolfe sings, “Guess I needed something to break me / Guess I needed something to shake me up,” a simple but beautifully evocative melody she repeats over acoustic guitar strums, eerie coils of musical saw-sounding background noise and the soft, steady pounding of a floor tom. Wolfe replaces the “something” with “someone” and finally, as the song ends, reveals who that “someone” is, closing the song out with the line, “It was you,” as her voice soars upward on the last syllable.
Elsewhere, it’s no surprise to hear Wolfe utter the lines “Afraid to live, afraid to die / Building a broken but precious web” after Hiss Spun’s references to her own experiences with anxiety and sleep paralysis. Like Hiss Spun, Birth of Violence enfolds broader topical concerns like school shootings and environmental decline into its scope of self-reflection. But if it weren’t for a direct lyric like “You can’t fight guns with more guns / We’ll all perish that way,” you’d likely not catch that the song, “Little Grave,” which otherwise reads like a grim nursery rhyme, has anything to do with the horrors of random gun violence. Likewise, if you’re looking for any kind of polemical message on “American Darkness,” the lyrics slip through your fingers when you try to look for any tangible specifics.
Similarly, by not disclosing who “you” happens to be on “The Mother Road,” Wolfe leaves listeners with many different doors to open and hallways to walk down. She sustains that sense of ambiguity throughout the album, which only amplifies the individual connection these songs can have with different listeners. As an example, Wolfe makes myriad references to femininity throughout Birth of Violence—on songs like “Dirt Universe,” the title track and others—but leaves plenty of room for interpretation. Who could have guessed, for example, that when she sings that she “took the mother road into goddess flesh” that she’s referring to the fabled American highway Route 66? If you want to understand how these themes of travel, self-actualization and suffering all thread together, you’ll have to squint to read between the lines.
Luckily, Birth of Violence rewards that squinting and makes for an enriching experience even where it refuses to reveal its mysteries. Ten years ago, Wolfe first appeared as an avatar of a much-needed expression of feminine darkness that only a select few artists have given us the language to navigate. The whiteface makeup, the dark robes and the emotional severity of the music all contributed to a foreboding persona that defied our Disney-like dichotomies of good and evil. But on an almost-defiantly downtempo, defiantly soft album, it’s Wolfe’s unguarded vulnerability that projects the music’s sense of power.
Wolfe has been making us more emotionally intelligent throughout her whole career. With Birth of Violence, she takes a momentous step forward with songs that initially mask their sophistication behind plodding, strummy, dreamy facades. Because of Wolfe’s newfound ability to communicate so much more with less, you could call Birth of Violence a tour de force—only Wolfe has mastered the art of eschewing force altogether.