If Tim Burton chose to make music, he’d probably strive to achieve what Chelsea Wolfe has done with Pain is Beauty. Listening through the entire album is sort of like taking a neon Ferris wheel ride with Dracula; it is seductive and aesthetically pleasing, yet dangerous and nightmarish in the coolest way possible. Within 30 seconds of the opening track (“Feral Love”), you’re sucked into Wolfe’s ominous world without warning. The world she creates is both romantic and post-apocalyptic, illuminated by industrial drums, haunting melodies, and numbing drones.
Upon a first listen, styles such as goth, industrial, and electronic immediately come to mind. However, after a more careful listen, there are several other elements that constitute Pain is Beauty’s idiosyncratic fervor. The album’s surrealist and dreamlike landscape is strikingly reminiscent of Robert Smith; there is beauty and despair, love and sadness, euphoria and heartbreak all taking place within the same moment. This atmospheric quality is enhanced through her ethereal and hazy vocal delivery. Her voice is often used almost texturally, smothered in reverb and shimmering on top of gloomy and pulsating instrumentals. This is not at all supposed to be interpreted as a notion that she isn’t adequate as a vocalist, quite on the contrary actually. The last track “Lone” is a perfect example of her impeccable sense of pitch and natural ability as a singer. I also admire the diverse instrumentation—the album is primarily driven by an electronic sound, only to be occasionally interrupted by a trebly Stratocaster or a sweeping string arrangement (on “House of Metal”).
What is even more unique about Pain is Beauty though is how the songs are crafted with the articulation of a veteran songwriter, only this isn’t exactly apparent at first because they are masked behind a wall of synths and thundering drums. “They’ll Clap When You’re Gone” showcases the raw, emotional intensity of her songwriting and captures a much-needed catharsis in regards to what the album is trying to achieve thematically as a whole. She ultimately accomplishes something truly innovative, as this record is by no means conventional. It is imaginatively dark and entertaining like a horror movie, at some parts a dance floor in a morgue and other times a peaceful bonfire in a cemetery. There’s no doubt that she has a taste for doom, but what sets her apart is her ability to capture beauty in a void of dark, paralyzing emotion.