Zola Jesus - Conatus

The whole is less than the sum of it’s parts.

It’s always fascinating to see how artists develop after promising starts. The eyes of the world can be a heavy burden, and what started as a passion, a desire, can quickly become a chore when faced with deadlines and the meddling of faceless execs. Does inspiration come so easy when you’re confronted with the tick, tick, tick of the studio clock, eating up money you’ve yet to earn? Just ask Nika Danilova. Repeating success on a bigger scale is not an easy trick, and it’s easy to tie yourself in knots trying. Even more so in the hostile glare so frequently shone on those considered unique. It’s obsequious in this day and age to refer to the ‘tortured artist’, but there’s no doubt the level of thought and care she puts into her work makes life difficult. Just how difficult is now painfully apparent.

From her distinctly lo-fi earlier material, the one constant has been her voice – deep, powerful, and able to cut right through the music and your psyche, that remains here – but, just as on last years ‘Strindinum II’, the music has been polished another notch. Synths are cleaner, beats crisper. Danilova has always been an aesthete, focused as much on space as on the details, are here she takes it further, but the increased production values haven’t led to grandstanding; quite the contrary. There’s nothing bloated or grandiose here; everything has a purpose, every note forms part of the story. It’s her most stripped back work to date, some songs reduced to just a few elements, or as with ‘Skin’, a simple piano riff. Such a Spartan approach is a neat metaphor for the baring of her soul, peeling off the outer layers to reach the core, something she clearly felt necessary. She’s talked of wanting it to have “the space to create it’s own environment, rather than suffocate”, of “surrendering myself to this passion”, and to this end she’s taken great care over texture and tonality. It is by turns hauntingly beautiful and atmospheric, difficult and frustrating, but also clearly the work of a troubled soul.

That much is obvious with opener ‘Swords’, just over a minute of weird bleeps and scratches, with undecipherable howls buried deep in the mix, an approach that reappears later on ‘Shivers’. It’s a disconcerting listen, reminiscent of ‘Kid A’ era Radiohead trying to find a new identity and voice. Synths here sound colder and more mechanical, detached from humanity. The incessant buzz of ‘Collapse’ gets inside your head, while the industrial loops of ‘Vessel’ recall shades of Depeche Mode. The yo-yo nature of the depressive is front and centre in ‘Ixode’, which flows through various lulls and crescendos, maximising the power of echo and some mournful strings. It’s not all doom and gloom though, and midway she even shows flashes of humour. “Did you wonder / What will come?” introduces ‘Seekir’, an upbeat groover, neatly followed by ‘In Your Nature’ whose simmering tension melts halfway through revealing a disco heart. They’re among her best work to date, although the euphoria quickly disappears on the overly maudlin ‘Lick The Palm…’ and the gorgeous piano ballad ‘Skin’, the latter slowly fading to nothing through a soft sea of cymbals.

Lyrically, Danilova has always kept it simple, her feelings projected with a direct matter-of-factness, and her disconcertion again comes couched in bold, unambiguous statements. “I won’t be there tomorrow”, “I’ve had enough”, “I’m the only one who sticks around” suggest isolation in rural Wisconsin is a curse, not a blessing. Romantically, she’s torn between “It hurts to let you in” and “No, I don’t want you to go”. You could read these as comments on very modern issues, society’s 21st Century mobility and selfish, “me first” attitude. We do live in increasingly depressing, dangerous times, and ‘Conatus’ is the perfect soundtrack to social decay. Having discussed her hopes of recording a “giant upbeat pop record” and also toyed with instrumentals, the goth-pop she’s settled for is perfectly of its time, embodying uncertainty and frustration. Not for nothing does she sound a warning that “Soon, we’ll be gone / Nothing left, only a whisper”. Despite all this doubt and second-guessing, Danilova lacks the emotional depth and originality of some of her peers, most notably Bjork, with too many tracks blurring into each other. It’s hard work to listen to, and one can’t help the feeling that the message got in the way of the music. Recall that ‘Stridulum II’ started life as a six-track EP, with another three added later. Here, she struggles to sustain her ideas over eleven, and leaves the impression that the whole is less than the sum of it’s parts. As a sign of the times, I can think of no greater irony.

Tags: Zola Jesus, Reviews, Album Reviews

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