Given that the one constant throughout Chelsea Wolfe’s career has been her refusal to fulfil anything resembling convention, perhaps it’s unsurprising that her new album Abyss is both the harshest and the gentlest record she has yet turned in. It is a stunning work, one so unique that it would be a waste of time to try and pin it to a certain genre: Wolfe adopts and then abandons styles and tones at a breakneck pace. But despite the artist’s ever-evolving sound, Abyss never feels muddied or inconsistent. The work has been so painstakingly constructed it feels as much like a novel as it does a record. It’s a troubled, troubling yet ultimately cathartic examination of the nature of life’s unknowns.
Death, love and nature are ultimately indistinguishable from one another in Wolfe’s distinctly painted world. “We bear no fruit, no flowers,” she sings on the devastating Iron Moon, her heartfelt timbres penetrating through alternating sections of sonic assault and near silence. “We get sick but never die.” Indeed, the link between the human form and the brutality of nature is one of the threads that run throughout the album; the ‘abyss’ of the titular track is the murky depths of the sea, the end of a relationship, and death itself, all at the same time.
But Abyss doesn’t only succeed thematically. On a sonic level, it is an unmitigated triumph. At times, the album provokes a deliberate and distinct sense of claustrophobia; on Carrion Flowers everything feels so close one could swear Wolfe herself was right behind them. Then, suddenly, the listener will find themselves utterly alone, often without warning. The intoxicating Maw, for example, ebbs and flows so dramatically that its emotional heft becomes increasingly devastating with every lurching spike in volume.
Though the best way to experience Abyss is in a single sitting, from beginning to end, it would be remiss not to point out the brilliance of After The Fall, the Rosetta Stone not only of the album but of Wolfe’s career to date. Hypnotically intense one moment, hypnotically subtle the next, it is a work of the blackest magic; a love song hiding within a series of melodic howls. “Nothing will keep us apart,” Wolfe says in a voice that implies the words are simultaneously a threat and an admission of love.
With its intensity and its intelligence, Abyss comes to resemble not only a singularly exciting artist’s mission statement, but also the deepest desires and fears of an unfailingly honest human being. It is a perfect example of what music is capable of; a primal exploration of the places words alone won’t go. On that level, as on so many others, it is easily one of the finest records of the year so far.