Nika Danilova (the diminutive siren that hides playfully behind the name Zola Jesus), could not have arrived into the pop consciousness at a more opportune time. Her breakthrough album ‘Stridulum II’ was one of the most remarkable success stories of 2010: its bleak, seemingly unforgiving yet ultimately transcendent song series captured a singular, austere atmosphere, the result of an authorial command belying Danilova’s tender age and experience. Anticipation for her follow-up has been intense, and in the wake of such unrelenting pressure, ‘Conatus’ is released.
Those who would wish that Zola Jesus remain as their preserve of all things introspective, their own personal damsel of the dark will find ‘Conatus’ something of a rude awakening. True, the digital gloom of ‘Swords’ is the perfect opening salvo, a cold recess that chills the heart and evokes the familiar strengths of ‘Night’ and ‘Trust Me’. But just as Danilova has expressed her experimental and industrial leanings, she is just as in thrall to the gossamer melodies of the Cocteau Twins and skewed hybrids demonstrated by Robyn.
In conjunction with producer Brian Foote (Jackie O Motherfucker, Cloudland Canyon), Danilova has embraced a new and demonstrably ornate approach, symbolised by the electronic shimmer of ‘Vessel’. Its dramatic contrast of rhythmic simplicity and fluttering vocal treatments bring to mind an ethereal scenario in which Elizabeth Fraser is being produced by Giorgio Moroder. Everywhere there are clear distillations of a delicious pop alloy being brought to hear: the coolly menacing ‘Ixode’, gleams with a post-modern iridescence, and the exquisite ‘In Your Nature’; a miniature soaring without qualm or question, designed precisely to allow Danilova’s majestic, stentorian vocals to take the greatest of flights.
For all this effervescence and froth, ‘Conatus’ is just as compelling for its more intimate and crepuscular tracks. The glacier pulse of ‘Hikikomori’ belongs to that exalted tradition of the “electronic torch song”, a lost sonic salute that Danilova has revived to thrilling effect throughout her career. The real prize is the searing ‘Lick The Palm Of The Burning Handshake’, where her profound grasp of the theatrical is fully brought to our attention. Its moon-shot flickers and eddying echoes bathe in that baleful power that first brought Zola Jesus to wider critical acclaim.
The album’s final stroke is perhaps her finest song to date; a gleaming sliver of delicacy entitled ‘Collapse’, an outpouring of gloriously unfettered emotion that declares “I would be nothing without your kiss”. It is breathtaking. ‘Conatus’ is a multi-faceted success: a delightful pop album that is nonetheless experimental; a defining work that craves reinterpretation by remixers; and a work of vision and longevity at a time of desperate, short-term career moves.
For more information visit the official Zola Jesus website.