Whether buried in noise or draped in gauzy layers of ethereal synth, Zola Jesus has long suggested that she has a great pop record in her. In fact, it seemed to be bubbling just underneath the surface of her two outstanding 2010 EPs, Stridulum and Valusia. On the former’s “Night,” Zola, née Nika Roza Danilova, made an anthem of moody, nocturnal longing, her operatic vocals driving the synth-laden dirge toward transcendence. And on the latter’s “Sea Talk,” Danilova even removed some of the gloomier elements of her previous EP and merely delivered a standout epic track that soared even higher, the emotional weight of her delivery carrying it to previously unexplored heights. By all indications, the direction in which Zola Jesus was heading appeared to be one rife with memorable choruses, mesmerizing melodies and perhaps even a legitimate hit.
Though the last of those three items remains to be determined, Zola Jesus’ new album Conatus delivers precisely the kind of sparse, moody and dark pop album that she’s promised all along. A logical continuation of the direction she explored on her prior two EPs, Conatus bears a similar kind of dreamy goth-pop sound, rich in deep shades of black and silver and midnight blue, but bearing a brighter glow in many respects. As evident by the pulsing beats in first single “Vessel,” this is a more danceable and exclamatory album. While Danilova maintains the shadowy, ethereal image she’s built up over the past few years, she’s reinforced it with a widescreen sound and some welcome invitations to the dancefloor.
The first indication of a change in direction comes immediately, with the sputtering percussion and glitchy progression of minute-long intro “Swords.” It’s a strange and almost hyperactive way to draw the listener in, though first proper song “Avalanche” pulls back to a more restrained, minimal style that Danilova has done elegantly and beautifully in the past, this being no exception. But then there’s “Vessel.” With clanging electronic beats, spare, openly ringing piano keys and Danilova’s effects-treated vocal tics, it’s far closer to a Depeche Mode song than Zola Jesus has ever come before, and it’s a side she shows off well. Though it’s still the dark, expressive pop that she’s made a trademark, it’s more corporeal and heavy, and highly impressive at that.
Conatus doesn’t find Zola Jesus radically configuring her sound, but rather refining it and building it up into something even more elaborate and huge. “Hikikomori” is a stunning example of the kind of sonic expansion she’s undergone, all subtly weeping strings and deep synth bass. And Danilova, while an expressive singer, shows off the kind of broad range of which she’s capable. Even simpler, slowly unfolding tracks like “Seekir” and “Ixode” reveal a more subtly impressive dynamic this time around. Yet better still is a highlight such as “Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake,” in which Danilova drives a soulful, piano driven melody toward the album’s most soaring chorus.
There’s so much breadth and solid pop songwriting throughout Conatus, it’s easy to forget that there are plenty who consider Zola Jesus off-putting or divisive. At this summer’s Serge Gainsbourg tribute at the Hollywood Bowl, more than a few onlookers seemed visibly uncomfortable with Danilova’s (true to the source material) squealing, screeching take on “En Melody.” Yet that’s precisely what makes Zola Jesus an interesting performer. She’s a bold artist, one who emphasizes “art” to an admirably exaggerated degree, but she also writes a damn good pop song.
Stream: Zola Jesus – “Vessel”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.