“Pain Is Beauty”
A shudder of emotional torment, poised between a swoon and a sob, resides in the voice of Chelsea Wolfe, and the ambiguity feels custom fitted to the music. “Pain Is Beauty,” her fourth album in three years, confirms her steadiness as a singer-songwriter of gothic intention, drawn to romantic fatalism and beautiful ruin.
Ms. Wolfe, who originally hails from Sacramento, has made her name in Los Angeles, and there’s a sly connotation of noir in her whole enterprise. Her first two albums — “The Grime and the Glow” and “Apokalypsis,” on Pendu sound – put her forth as a sepulchral wraith. Her third, “Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs” (Sargent House), exuded a spare and chilling composure, more intimate but hardly less opaque.
She produced “Pain Is Beauty” with Ben Chisholm, who plays bass and synthesizer on the album, alongside the guitarist Kevin Dockter and the drummer Dylan Fujioka. (The same personnel are currently on a tour that reaches the Bowery Ballroom on Sept. 13.) There’s a slight push toward synthetic texture, though the prevailing sound still involves her voice against a twangy guitar, both bathed in cavernous reverb. Mainly the electronics furnish details like the rhythmic thrum in “Feral Love,” which calls to mind the fleet of helicopters in the opening scene of “Short Cuts,” the Robert Altman film.
You don’t have to reach to find other cinematic elements on the album, from the horror-movie organ drone of “Kings” to the washed-out retro-pop of “Destruction Makes the World Burn Brighter,” offered in tribute to David Lynch. Elsewhere the allusions feel more rooted in the realm of music, as when “House of Metal” coalesces around a dolorous, slow-to-unfold arpeggio, evoking Portishead.
Ms. Wolfe has often said that she draws inspiration from Scandinavian black metal, but it’s a fair question whether that claim has more to do with an image, or an idea, than it does with actual sound. On a few of these new songs, like “We Hit a Wall,” her singing is actually most reminiscent of Feist.
In any case, the attractive but suffocating atmosphere on “Pain Is Beauty” should be understood as precise aesthetic calculation. On “The Waves Have Come,” Ms. Wolfe sings slowly and heartbreakingly from the vantage of a tsunami survivor. On “Sick,” she basks in the toxic runoff of a relationship. And a doom-folkish tune called “They’ll Clap When You’re Gone” includes the line “I carry a heaviness like a mountain” — a stoical complaint that sounds as if it’s sung inside a grain silo, in abject and perfect solitude. NATE CHINEN