Monday, September 18, 2017

Review of Zola Jesus' "Okovi"

O posted this review earlier this afternoon on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: Sometimes in order to move forward, you have to take a step back.

When I first jumped onto the Zola Jesus train, it was already in motion. So I hit the floor hard, rolled for about six feet and smashed the back of my skull against the iron wall. I sat up, rubbing my head in confusion. Who is this Zola Jesus? Her birth name is Nicole Hummel, but she also goes by Nika Roza Danilova. Wikipedia says Zola Jesus is a person, but her bio on Sputnik says its a band. They said her music mixed electronic, industrial, classic and goth. But when I listened to her 2014 album Taiga, what I heard sounded more like alternative pop. My brain swam with bewilderment. Who is Zola Jesus? Maybe she's as confused as I am.

Perhaps that's the raison d'etre for Okovi, Zola Jesus' new album. In order to find who she is, Zola Jesus has taken a step back. I don't mean it in a derogatory way. It's more of a fortification thing. Sometimes, in order to move forward, you have to take a step back -- back to your roots to remember who you really are. With this album, Danilova has stepped back in as many ways as she can think of. She moved from Seattle back to Wisconsin, to simplify her life and regain some peace of mind. She moved from the Mute label, the label on which she released Taiga, back to Sacred Bones, her original label. And she moved her music back to the darker, more distinctive, goth-tinged style for which she originally was known. In more ways than not, this is a good thing.

The sounds of Okovi are mostly quite beautiful. The album is dominated by synths and string instruments (lots of violins, cellos and the like), supporting Danilova's ethereal (and sometimes electronically altered) vocals. A few of the tracks feature industrial-type beats, but many of them offer very limited percussion, giving the album something of an unearthly feel.

Okovi is a dark album, but not a bleak one. On it, Danilova deals with serious subject matter -- suicide, mental turmoil, the possible meaningless of life. Somehow, though, she faces these difficult issues from a position of self-assurance. On "Wiseblood", the album's best track, she asks us (and herself) this essential question: "If it doesn't make you wiser/Doesn't make you stronger/Doesn't make you live a little bit/What are you doing?" And from this state of inner strength, she faces down demons which in the past have threatened to overwhelm her. So while the lyrics often contain images of death and questions about emptiness ("What remains of us?/... I'm, I'm nothing" from "Remains"), there are also representations of rebirth ("Let it sing, don't let it hold you down/In the static you were reborn" from "Exhumed") as a counterbalance.

Whereas Taiga found Danilova changing her style, searching for more mainstream appeal, or maybe just wanting to try something different, Okovi finds her rediscovering herself. As a result, she's made a better, and more memorable) album.

So who is Zola Jesus? Not even she knows for sure, but she's figuring it out. And judging by Okovi, she's back on the right track.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars