Zola Jesus is the stage name of singer/songwriter Nika Roza Danilova, a 22-year-old Wisconsinite whose second LP, Stridulum II, made waves in the indie music press last year for its gothic sensibility and laid down the blueprint for her newest release, Conatus. Occupying a space in the contemporary indie music scene somewhere between the occult-alluding and economical post-punk sound of These New Puritans and Florence and the Machine’s taste for dramatic swings between mass-appeal, rousing anthems and darker subjects like loneliness, alcoholism, and domestic/sexual abuse (one interpretation of early single “Kiss with a Fist”) while also drawing on earlier influences like Cocteau Twins, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Dead Can Dance, Danilova’s music sounds like the product of social and physical isolation. Indeed, her childhood was spent in the forest of Wisconsin and she has spoken about her solitary upbringing and its inevitable influence on her personality and music in past interviews.
Another reference point is the music that Karin Dreijer Andersson of The Knife makes as Fever Ray, her solo project. Fever Ray’s music, though, is more coldly electronic, without the addition of orchestration and without the particular aesthetic affectation that contributes to Zola Jesus’ classification as ‘gothic.’ The real departure point between Fever Ray and Zola Jesus is, of course, their voices. Andersson’s delivery is both alien and alienating; despite the fact that the music is melodic and inviting on occasion, her vocal shrillness alternating with an eerie deep end accentuates the discomfiting elements of the music, not the beauty of it. On the opposite side of the vocal spectrum is Danilova, whose warmth and power bring humanity to her cool electronics and dark subject matter. It’s been asserted in other reviews that Danilova’s voice is immediately recognizable and distinctly her own, and for the most part I agree, with one small exception: her delivery on the verses of “Hikikomori” reminds me of the style of The xx’s Romy Madley Croft; I think it’s the short notes that bring out this hiccupping similarity. Both singers are cramming a lot of emotion into those short notes, but certainly when Danilova is singing longer phrases, her distinct lyricism takes over again.
‘Conatus’ is a Latin philosophical term meaning effort, undertaking, or striving, particularly with regard to the human condition and our will for self-preservation. Danilova reportedly chose the album’s title before she began writing any of the songs for it and has reflected that the title comes more from the process of making the album rather than a summary of the songs themselves.
Now for the bad news (and also, I think, the good news): Conatus does not contain a track so immediately relatable yet haunting and otherworldly-sounding as Stridulum II’s “Sea Talk.” The closest Danilova comes on Conatus is the driving, industrial sound of “Vessel” and its brief refrain that sounds quite like the sun breaking through clouds. Rather, the whole album is more even, more cohesive, more focused than its predecessor. Danilova also explores the new frontier (for her) of more straight-ahead (synth)pop music on tracks like “Seekir” and “In Your Nature.” Of course, her brand of avant-pop owes as much to industrial music and dubstep as it does to, well… accessible, melodic, easy-to-digest pop music (I refuse to make a Lady Gaga reference. Except I just did. Eeeek). Indeed, much of the album teeters on the cusp of being palatable to a bigger, more mainstream audience than the one she currently reaches.
While I have no idea of the kind of scope Danilova has for her music in the near or distant future, it seems to me that her fixation on subjects like loneliness, alienation, and abandonment combined with her particular styling/aesthetic choices provide the perfect counterpoint to her melodies and powerful vocal presence, lending a generous amount of complexity and darkness to her work. Her voice also seems to be that complicated thing: it’s what brings warmth and humanity into these often mechanical-sounding songs, but it also is one of the darkest elements of her sound, emphasizing the despair about which she so often sings. Her increased use of electronics also contributes depth and a sense of musical growth to Conatus that wasn’t as evident on Stridulum II. A lovely, assured, and remarkable release.