Zola Jesus - Conatus
Record Label: Sacred Bones
Release Date: October 4th, 2011
Short on stature and age, but tremendous in every other way - this is the conversation surrounding Zola Jesus’ Nika Roza Danilova. The midwestern young woman with the huge voice, writer of all her own music, double major, community-anointed goddess of goth - those are the descrptions that will make their way into every description you read, which now includes this one. She is also known for her prolific ways, and she has not lagged in 2011; she collaborated with Prefuse 73 on The Misanthrope Meditation 2011 and also lent her voice to M83’s star-scraping double-album kickoff “Intro.” Each of these things lend a bit of insight into the new Zola Jesus album: Conatus.
Conatus - “moving forward” in Latin, according to the sources I checked. This is not just the title, but a theme, one that should be remembered when listening to this album.
2010's UK-released Stridulum II was her biggest and best release to date, a gauntlet of shiver-inducing, core-shaking songs. It was huge and emotional in the most intense, forceful way. Conatus draws out emotion in a much different way, though the core of what Zola Jesus does hasn’t changed greatly. There is a wider variety of sound here, a branching out to new areas, different styles, different (read: quieter) volumes. The music is not so dense and towering; those moments have been reduced to frequent peaks rather than far-flung chains. Listeners will be much more inclined to speak of Conatus with words like “nuance” and “texture” when describing it.
Numerous ideas are touched upon throughout, integrated and shaped in ways that are still leave the music easily recognizable as Zola Jesus music. Industrial (“Swords”), electronica (“Ixode”), and pop (“In Your Nature”)elements are interwoven throughout. The “moving forward” is evident, pushed by Danilova’s stated disdain for anything she wrote that didn’t sound new and aided by her decision to bring in a producer (Brian Foote) and session musicians.
There is much more space throughout, the music’s density toned down without sacrificing any experimention, and this serves only to heighten the emotions already created so well. The tone is often dire (which seem to be manifestations of the feelings Danilova herself has expressed while writing), feelings of solitude and misery. Despite the heavy mood, there is a dark beauty to it all, a romance and solace that blooms splendidly throughout. With the increased space, it is given space to branch out and grow, giving the listeners an experience that is more adventure than experience.
Of course, the strongest, most noted element of Zola Jesus has always been Danilova’s voice. Much is made of her opera training and how she has paired it with her music (and how she has tried to undo that training), and every bit of praise is deserved. Her voice is raw and over-powering, an emotion-soaked call that will leave more than a few jaws on the floor. It really doesn’t matter the volume or clamor surrounding it - it woos from below the sharp clicks and patters of “Shivers” and absolutely slices emotions to the bone on piano ballad “Skin.” It is an unstoppable force that maintains a delicate vulnerability, and it has only improved since her last release. With such choices as a delicate piano ballad (“Skin”) and a grandiose hymn (“Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake”), she shows more diversity and nuance, which both seem to be emerging as a theme here.
Conatus truly lives up to its name. Some may miss the monolithic nature of Stridulum, but the change is better described as “different” than “worse.” It is a showcase for how Zola Jesus has quickly evolved over the course of her short career, shedding buzzwords and misplaced genre descriptions, and points toward a potential direction for her future work. It is an excellent album, and one that will quickly become better as it ages with the listener.