Zola Jesus, or really, Nika Roza Danilova, who does most everything you hear on the band's records except play strings, is not an artist who sounds, or aspires to sound, "effortless." A diminutive young woman with an enormous voice, her songs hinge on the contrast between her earnest, solemn intensity and industrial and synth-pop elements that often veer into discordance. Conatus, the title of her second or third full-length record in three years (depending on how you're counting), is a Latin term used in metaphysics to describe the will to exist, to strive for betterment. That telegraphed effort might have been awkward if this wasn't clearly her best work. The instrumentation here—spare, beautiful strings and piano, comingling with the harsh texture of assorted broken robots—is an intriguing platform for the singing, which has all the confidence of big 80s pop. The record dabbles with other eras, "Vessel"'s glitchy undercurrent recalls Björk's career peak, Homogenic, for instance. From track to track, the most important through line is a well-defined sense of space; Danilova's voice soaring above comparatively minimal instrumentals, as if the few card tables it'd take to house the band's gear were placed in the middle of a huge, empty train station. It's Gothic like a cathedral, rather than "goth" like a gloomy mall kiosk.
Zola Jesus songs are less about slick hooks laid into verse-chorus-verse and more about a slow and deliberate tension building towards release. That continual climb to cathartic boom is what allowed her two 2010 releases to make such an impact within their slim run times. They felt bigger than slight EPs. At album length, there's the risk of emotional exhaustion. Songs as different as the throbbing synth-pop of "Hikikomori" and the chilly balladry of "Skin" take a similarly wrenching toll. Light and breezy, it is not. You sense that Danilova is still getting a handle on what shape her songs can take. The album's best, the evocatively titled "Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake," subverts formula to swell effect. With its pretty piano loops and big, slow beats, the song initially has that same sense of momentum rising. A third of the way in it feels like every drum strike is somehow louder, more emphatic than the last. But instead of perpetually reaching for a higher structural peak, it leaps off halfway, hang-gliding down on a gust of gentle string arrangements. The record could use more of those counterintuitive zags. It's quite likely to be a crossover success both for Danilova, and dark local label Sacred Bones, who've not yet put out something with this sort of mainstream pop heft. It seems more like a starting point than a culmination though, and I'd hazard to guess that the best records are yet to come. With her youth, talent, and work-rate, it'd be a sort of shame if Conatus ended up as Zola Jesus' masterpiece, anyway
Photo Angel Ceballos