Among my favourite singer-songwriters is Chelsea Wolfe. To spend time with her albums – the last two of which featured in my Best Albums of the Year lists: Birth of Violence in 2019 and Hiss Spun in 2017 – is to become immersed in uniquely spine-tingling worlds of dark lyricism, but i’m especially fond of what she does with her songs in a live context. The 2012 Live at Roadburn album showcased how tracks drawn from The Grime and the Glow and Ἀποκάλυψις could be reconfigured, expanded and transformed – not necessarily outclassing the originals (though that is the case for some) but at least providing an equally engrossing, alternative realisation of them.
Another excellent example of this is a short EP released in 2014 as part of the extensive Folkadelphia Sessions series. For her session, Wolfe was joined by long-term collaborators Ben Chisholm and violinist Andrea Calderon, selecting three songs to explore in a more stripped-back form: ‘Boyfriend’ from the album Unknown Rooms, and ‘House of Metal’ and ‘The Warden’ from Pain is Beauty. It’s always interesting to hear what happens when musicians rethink and rework their material in situations where limitations are imposed, and in the case of these three songs, they all take on a new intimacy, clarity and power. The clarity is primarily located around Wolfe’s voice, which here mostly lacks the veil-like, reverberant sonic smoke that so often drifts and curls around her melodies. That being said, despite there being a sense of closer proximity, that doesn’t mean she sounds any less elusive.
This is especially so in ‘House of Metal’, the lyrics of which are a bit like an obsessive tongue twister: “You put the pill inside the petal / You put the petal in your mouth / You put your love inside the metal / You build the metal for your house”. Throughout, Wolfe avoids putting emphasis on the consonants (similar to the original version, but perhaps more deliberately here), so the lyrics take on a somewhat abstract form, hinting at the words while playing with their rhyming similarities. This feeds into the prevailing tone of the song, which is dark and brooding, like a soulful funeral dirge. Lacking either verses or choruses in the conventional sense, ‘House of Metal’ is focused entirely on just moving forward over a steady oscillating bass (using the sound of a bass clarinet); this, together with the cycling nature of the abstracted lyrics – enhanced by the fact that Wolfe’s melody is built upon just two notes, rocking back and forth – combines to create an intense, heavy processional. There is some light in the darkness, though, emanating from the song’s accompanying countermelody and its instrumental interlude partway through; they contrast entirely with everything else, being in a high register and moving with a wistful lyrical freedom that, in this context, becomes almost unbearably poignant.
‘Boyfriend’ also features a repeating bass figure, a slow 7-beat ostinato that makes it feel like a solemn chaconne. Wolfe’s voice is clearest here, articulating a troubled contrast of emotions, invoking poison and glory, of being stranded and swimming. They’re sentiments that seem connected (emotionally invested) and disconnected (cautionary, sceptical) simultaneously, which makes real sense given the strained, halting structure and delivery of the song. Again, the main melody consists of only two or three adjacent notes, so as a whole ‘Boyfriend’ sounds constricted, even enclosed. The balance in the Folkadelphia Session version is superior to the original, the song’s simple elements blending in a more cohesive and emotive way; the soft chords introduced underneath later on (which, in both versions, i always hear as being like a far-off brass band) are a beautifully restrained form of reinforcement, and Wolfe’s impassioned duet with Calderon carries real, searing heat.
As well as being one of her best, ‘The Warden’ is also one of Wolfe’s more electronically pumped tracks, propelled along on Pain Is Beauty over rapid, unstoppable beats. The Folkadelphia version could hardly be more different, pulled back to guitar and synth without any hint of percussion, its pulse – though technically no slower – now sounding languid. The effect this has on the song is stunning, causing a massive rift between the lyrics’ stark evocations of torture methods and implements (“The heavy endless weight on my heels … The water on my head … The rack and the wheel … The cold and the loud and they won’t let me sleep …”), again articulated with a melody made up of just three adjacent notes, and the dreamy, almost ecstatic quality of the refrain, where the harmonies, and Wolfe’s voice, break free and expand upward and outward. It brings to mind the dichotomy of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, pitting the cruel machinations of men against an ineffable, unshakeable faith (though the song was actually inspired by the dismal conclusion to George Orwell’s 1984, written by Wolfe as a kind of alternate ending where love ultimately prevails). This rift at the heart of the song is present in the original version, of course, but more implied there than anything else. Here, seemingly a world away from that cool electronica veneer, it’s brought to the fore, causing both aspects to feel exaggerated, made both more desolate and more radiant. Now, each and every one of the song’s numerous melodic clashes and suspensions communicates pure, exquisite pain. In fact, it perfectly encapsulates the title of its original album home, “pain is beauty”; in this version both the pain and the beauty in ‘The Warden’ become utterly heartbreaking.
Folkadelphia Session 5/31/2014 is available as a free download from the Folkadelphia Bandcamp site.