In some respects, it’s helpful to have a dictionary on hand when listening to Zola Jesus. Essentially the moniker under which Nika Roza Danilova operates, Zola Jesus has a tendency to use big or scientific words for song and record titles. Last year, she released the “Stridulum” EP and an expanded version of that which was lovingly called “Stridulum II”. The title is remarkably obscure to find a meaning to, but reportedly it’s a Latin word that means the sound a bird or an insect makes when rubbing its wings together. The vocabulary fun continues on the new Zola Jesus record “Conatus”, the title of which is another Latin term referring to the inclination of a thing to continue to exist and enhance itself. More on that later. Other fun track titles on the new record include “Hikikomori”, a Japanese word meaning a reclusive person, and “Ixode”, which is a genus of hard-bodied ticks. Let it be known that Zola Jesus is doing more than just schooling you in dark pop melodies. Do you need to know the deeper meanings behind these titles in order to fully understand what they’re trying to accomplish? Nah. It’s likely that Danilova simply chose those words because they look and/or sound cool, not because they had an influence on a particular sound or lyric. Don’t write the record off as somebody trying to sound smart to mask glaring idiocy either – “Conatus” excels no matter if you’re using 10 dollar or 10 cent vocabulary.
If you’re familiar with past Zola Jesus efforts, “Conatus” comes across like a slight upgrade in a number of ways. Her sound is often described as gothic, with strong pop sensibilities and heavy synth/industrial tones. If Lykke Li and Natasha Khan (aka Bat for Lashes) were to have a blonde-haired musical baby, Zola Jesus would be the result. You could say the same thing about Siouxie Sioux and Kate Bush. It’s also a little surprising what with her similarities to these other pretty popular acts that she isn’t achieving that same level of success. Perhaps the new record will change that. The arrangements are bigger and more dramatic than ever, and Danilova’s voice is much clearer and up-front compared to past recordings. She belts it out to the rafters with some tour-de-force singing that is highly emotional and passionate. That sort of power comes from being a trained opera singer, even if the style of music she makes is pretty far removed from your traditional opera.
After the echo-laden, electro-glitch minute-long “Swords” provides a lovely intro to the record, “Avalanche” pairs heavy drum machine beats with ominous synths. It is by no means a thrilling, club-ready hit, and its eventual descent into a capella vocals during the final minute very much keeps to that mentality. Not every album needs to start in a fun and or even commercially viable fashion, and the first two tracks are more darkly beautiful than they are easy to like. That’s only a problem if you choose to make it one. Things go industrial on first single “Vessel”, and amid the electro-squelches and heavy piano, you can’t help but feel that Trent Reznor would greatly appreciate the track. The verse-chorus-verse structure of the track also goes a long way towards making it more likable and catchy in the face of abject oddity, particularly as the track dissolves into chaotic static in the final 45 seconds. The pulsating synths of “Hikikomori” are paced briskly enough to make the track a potential club hit, even as it wallows in despair the entire time. It’s just the beginning of a remarkably energetic midsection of the album, one that slowly moves out of its depressing funk and into something a little warmer and a little brighter, though Danilova’s intensity and focus never really lets up. “In Your Nature” is fascinating in particular for Danilova’s wounded and vulnerable vocals, along with its liberal use of strings, which aren’t as widely used across the rest of the record. The saddest moment on “Conatus” strikes right near the end, where the piano ballad “Skin” sounds a whole lot like somebody hitting rock bottom. When Danilova sings, “I’ve had enough”, she emotes it with such pain that it’s not hard to believe she’s truly given up. That pain finally overwhelms her completely on closing track “Collapse”, with a trance-like synth dominating the melody, she keeps coming back to the line, “It hurts to let you in”. Yet in spite of the agony it causes, she still surrenders herself over to it because it provides relief. Call it self-abuse if you like, but sometimes we all need to let our dark sides have free reign to keep us sane.
Where “Conatus” ultimately winds up in trouble is in commercial viability. No, easily likable music is not a requirement for success nor does it make a record better or worse. The moody vibes that dominate this album are largely offset by strong beats and interesting melodies. It’s the structure of the songs themselves that feel formless at times that bring a very wandering nature to the record. That’s funny because this is the first Zola Jesus album that exudes confidence and power, and the first where Danilova seems to fully know what she’s going for. There’s a glue that makes “Conatus” feel like a whole thematic journey from darkness to light to murky resolution, but there are missing chorus detours and unbalanced verse dark alleys on that path providing the occasional mixed signal. For the most part though, this record shows growth for Zola Jesus. It is, as the Latin word title of the record means, something that has the inclination to continue to exist and enhance itself. This might not be the work that finally graduates Danilova to the big leagues of the darkwave subgenre, but she’s certainly on her way.