Pop Culture

Album Review: Chelsea Wolfe, ‘She Reaches Out to She Reaches Out to She’

Chelsea Wolfe has always found refuge in the darkness, but she’s never embraced it quite like she does on She Reaches Out to She Reaches Out to She. On her last solo album, 2019’s Birth of Violence, the genre-blending artist dialed back the distortion that pervaded her previous two records, 2015’s Abyss and 2017’s Hiss Spun, evoking the same ghostly wonder while highlighting the emotional strength of her songwriting and the ways it’d grown since her early acoustic offerings. Stripped of affectation, her music not only remained gloomy and ethereal but sounded just as heavy in its gentle vulnerability. What was new was not just the expression of dark beauty through a different set of parameters – Wolfe has done this her entire career, dabbling in neofolk, doom metal, drone, and electronica – but an almost relaxed intimacy, spurred from a need to stand still and burn off the exhaustion of spending eight years on the road, constantly in motion.

The title of her new album might point to the continuation of a infinite cycle, but it also marks what Wolfe has called a “rebirth.” Though once again cloaked in a storm of noise, sound effects, and electronics, Wolfe’s music comes across as a meditative practice rather than an effort to chart an enigmatic and fantastical journey around the self. “Guess I needed something to break me/ Guess I needed something to shake me up,” she sang on Birth of Violence’s ‘The Mother Road’, and if that album signified a breaking point, She Reaches Out to She Reaches Out to She is a breaking through. Rather than another resetting of musical boundaries or a simple regression to older, sludgier sounds, its aim is the reconciliation of “darkness and cosiness,” in her words, stepping toward the light in the converging paths of self-actualization and undoing. Having spent time working on less distinctly personal projects – soundtracking the 2022 horror film X and collaborating with Converge on 2021’s Bloodmoon: I – Wolfe has now found ways to separate the brooding, gothic nature of her past work from the perpetuity of toil and unrest, leading to her most spectrally cathartic and euphoric album to date.

Wolfe still reaches for the mythical and otherworldly in laying out about her experience, but right out of the gate, her language is also strikingly direct: “That shit does not define me anymore,” she declares on ‘Whispers of the Echo Chamber’, between references to shedding exoskeletons and “twisting the old self into poetry.” Her voice is hushed, but its intimate power is centered in rather than drifting through the foreboding landscape. If an older song like ‘American Darkness’ invoked comparisons to classic trip-hop, the genre’s influence here is refracted in ways that position it firmly within Wolfe’s universe: the industrial beat is punishing, and the instrumentation threatens to down the song’s minimal foundation without quite obliterating it – until the visceral outro, where the mix seems to absorb Wolfe’s harrowing screams of “more, more, more,” and finally, “done.” It’s not the dissonance that’s thrilling but what lurks in and out of the shadows; even on a more static song like ‘Salt’, the detailed production keeps things texturally engaging – you just have to lean in a little more.

The influence of ‘90s electronica is especially prominent on She Reaches Out to She Reaches Out to She, and though it can be traced back to Wolfe’s 2013 record Pain Is Beauty, what distinguishes it is a collaborative, deconstructive approach that goes beyond the genre fusion of Abyss. Wolfe wrote the songs with multi-instrumentalist Ben Chisholm, drummer Jess Gowrie, and guitarist Bryan Tulao, but you can hear how deeply the songs were reshaped in the production and mixing process between producer Dave Sitek and Shawn Everett, mirroring Wolfe’s own transformation. The clarity here is occasionally searing, like the guitar solo that blazes through the sparse closing track ‘Dusk’, and the songs feel fully realized, but they also give off the impression of traversing a liminal space between inception and completion, between pulling back and plunging into the unknown. The discombobulated, clattering pulse of ‘Eyes Like Nightshade’ seems to have arranged itself out of broken pieces; ‘Tunnel Lights’ both slows down the tempo and draws up the tension, and it’s almost a miracle that Wolfe’s voice doesn’t drown in the mysterious pull.

Wolfe began writing these songs in the spring of 2020 and was halfway through the process when she got sober from alcohol in early 2021. “During the process of getting sober, you have to enter that cave, because that’s where the treasure is,” she has said, and She Reaches Out finds her crawling through as well as out, treasuring her newfound presence instead of some faint light at the end of the tunnel. Even ‘Everything Turns Blue’, a song about ridding yourself of toxicity, stings with the enduring question: “What do I have to do to heal you out of me?” If Wolfe were to write the songs two years later, chances are they’d still loom large – getting out of it is an ongoing process. But you can feel it happening, and more than any of the singles, it’s the penultimate ‘Place in the Sun’ that represents a tidal shift, catharsis giving way to softness: “I am safe in this body/ Safe in this heart/ I have made it this far to live this life,” she sings, delicate and soaring. The sentiment is so overpowering in its simplicity that even as the song’s cold, mechanical rumble persists, her voice just sweeps it into the fold. Under her wing, the beauty is nothing short of breathtaking.

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