An echo chamber is a mirrored room of validation, catering to and justifying our needs while endlessly and irresponsibly reflecting only what we want — or need — to hear. On Chelsea Wolfe’s cathartic new album, She Reaches Out to She Reaches Out to She, the shapeshifting goth rocker smashes this regressive tendency in an effort to heal and move forward. The result is an impressive, liberating album of icy rhythms and brutal honesty.
Wolfe is a chilling, stylish and talented enigma: over the course of six full-length albums and two collaborations (including one with a group of very highly-regarded Salemites), she has crafted some of the most intense and punishing music of the 2010s. Covering diverse genres and making stylistic leaps that could suffocate a less determined artist, Wolfe has honed her many influences into a sound all her own, a sharp, overwhelming configuration of goth, doom, electronica and folk.
Throughout She Reaches Out to She Reaches Out to She, there are images of breaks and bonds, bitterness and provocations, bones and fire. But there’s also a contradictory — and very necessary — sense of freedom, purification and wonder. Working closely with frequent collaborators Ben Chisholm (synth, drum programming, piano, pre-production), Jess Gowrie (drums, drum machines, guitar), and Bryan Tulao (lead guitar), Wolfe kept the writing and recording process minimal and intimate. Besides the core band, she brought in producer-extraordinaire Dave Sitek and mixer Shawn Everett to maximize the album’s delicate and urgent tone. The arrangements, in particular the vocals, are lush and powerful, with Wolfe’s ghostly voice penetrating the cavernous drums and electronics.
Album opener “Whispers in the Echo Chamber” drifts in on a rumbling torrent of electronic fuzz and pounding, hollow drums before Wolfe’s inimitable voice cascades over the frictive instrumental, singing, “Whispers in the echo chamber of my mind / In the void they come alive and intertwine / In the void I saw all I ever wanted / Beyond reality, beyond the binary.” Although she’s fallen back into old patterns, Wolfe quickly realizes she must escape from this self-fulfilling cycle, and as the chorus erupts in a wall of atonal glitch and smoke, her disembodied voice tells her ambiguous oppressor, “Undone / Cut the cords / Cut ties / To yours.” She is letting go, casting off that which holds her back, and while it’s a bittersweet goodbye, it’s essential for survival. After a spoken word section, in which Wolfe explains why she has to leave her unnamed tormentor, she repeats the chorus over and over, a mantra for self-preservation. The outro — featuring a sludgy, distorted riff and Wolfe scream-growling “More! more! more! Done” — is harrowing, with Wolfe making the defiant and definite decision to change. She deserves to heal, and this is how that painful journey begins.
After the slightly more subdued folk of 2019’s Birth of Violence, Wolfe’s proclivity for noise and rhythm returns on She Reaches Out to She Reaches Out to She, and she sounds like she’s missed the buzzing embrace of electronics. While the album’s multi-hyphenate genre explorations are consistent and commendable (“Unseen World” features a chorus tinged with Middle Eastern scale and a light drum and bass backbone that only fully materializes as the song concludes), Wolfe and her collaborators lean heavily on ‘90s electronica. The album conjures up and mutates the sounds of Massive Attack, Portishead, and Björk while also incorporating the theatrical, fire-and-brimstone lyricism of PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love.
In particular, "Tunnel Lights" and "The Liminal” are kindred spirits in both sound and content, minimalist exercises in gothic trip-hop that serve as the album’s complementary centrepiece. The pounding, distorted “Tunnel Lights” is indebted to Portishead’s enigmatic ticks and coos, while the tragic avant-R&B of “The Liminal,” with its twinkling piano, towering chorus and images of exoskeletons, feels like it came straight off Mezzanine. Together, the two songs act as the album’s most prominent calls to growth: on the former, Wolfe asks, “What must be severed, left behind? / What is there yet to find?” even though she’s already begun to answer that very difficult question. On the latter, she takes charge of herself in a moment of clarity, singing, “I’m the future, I’m the former / I nurtured me, I came back stronger.” For Wolfe, the past does not hinder who she’s become, nor who she will become; instead, she accepts it as an intricate part of her whole self.
Although the need for deliverance is all over She Reaches Out to She Reaches Out to She, it is most present on the delicate “Place in the Sun,” where Wolfe sings, over synth strings, a steady piano and jittery, indecisive drums, “Wings in our lungs / And with the air my guide / Let me fly.” It’s a beautiful image of escape, of acceptance and transformation — It’s the album’s best track, beautiful and hopeful but never saccharine or self-serving. In fact, as the song drifts away on a cascading chorus of voices, a cold, mechanical drum break takes us to the fade, proving that we’re not fully recovered just yet.
Wolfe’s modulated voice wordlessly introduces the album’s penultimate track, “Dusk,” a lament for what’s been lost that eventually results in a metamorphic self-immolation. Here, at the end, true love’s bruised and battered visage is found hiding in the shadows, where it’s given a chance to reconstruct itself. It will heal, and so will Wolfe. Sacrifice is necessary, and pain is inevitable, but it’s only temporary. A foil to “Whisper in the Echo Chamber,” “Dusk” also includes a distorted, screeching guitar interlude courtesy of Tulao. However, instead of a crushing, repeated riff, this solo soars on Phoenix wings, a regenerative musical cue over which Wolfe reassuringly sings, “Don’t give me up / Don’t let me go / And I will go through the fire” before the final fade.
She Reaches Out to She Reaches Out to She is a wondrous, rhythmic exercise in acceptance, change and self-love. The songs blip and build and bleed as the memories of Wolfe’s past haunt her present, all while serving as a guide for her future self. While Wolfe’s previous output piled on the bleakness and gloom, on She Reaches Out to She Reaches Out to She, those themes and tones are contradicted by hope and self-actualization. The album, one of Wolfe’s best, is a powerful reminder that you are good enough, strong enough and brave enough to be mighty, authentic and free. All it takes is a spark, and some noise.