opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN
On the pre-chorus to “Go (Blank Sea),” a track from the new Zola Jesus LP Taiga, as Nika Roza Danilova sings, “Doesn’t know the truth in you,” there’s a quiet little vocal track in the background where Danilova sings out a countermelody in the meaningless scat-derived syllable “doo.” Maybe that doesn’t seem important, but what about the way a rapidly pulsating synth cycles through the chord progression on the second verse? Because that sounds straight out of the trance-ier end of ‘90s big beat to me. On the muted bridge of the same song, Danilova snarls, “And I said, no one can stop me now,” really leaning into that “now” with a nasally curlicue at the finish that I’m pretty sure is one of the early lessons in the Liz Phair Playbook. But the song? “Go (Blank Sea)” doesn’t sound like Liz Phair or post-rave-era club music. It sure as hell doesn’t have much to do with scat. No, it’s this walloping electropop song straight out of contemporary chart-pop, with a bottomless low end, hinged on the same kind of huge, easy vocal hook that made CHVRCHES stars not so long ago, only delivered in Danilova’s room-filling, opera-trained bellow. “Go (Blank Sea)” doesn’t sound like pastiche, it sounds the like the less talked-about side of “record collector” music: the work of an artist who, having been exposed to a vast amount of music, is now confidently drawing on any and all prior referents she needs to make her songs work. In isolation, this or that part might remind the listener of this or that other song, singer, sound – you can play this game with pretty much every sonic element on Taiga – but the provenance of the pieces is irrelevant once they enter the formidable orbit of Zola Jesus. Danilova cuts a petite figure, not much over five feet, but on record and on stage alike, she has a planetary gravitational pull with or without her increasingly high-fashion getups.
It wasn’t always this way. In 2008, when her earliest recorded output was making the rounds online, Danilova was a Wisconsin teenager making harsh industrial pop in her home, the kind of girl who names her songs after characters from Carroll or Lynch and calls herself “Zola Jesus” because she thinks that’s a pretty cool name. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a body of work mature so rapidly as Zola Jesus’s; only one year later came The Spoils,her debut LP for Sacred Bones, which cemented her early sound and then pushed far beyond its constrictions with “Clay Bodies,” still one of her most astonishing pieces of music and definitely the most prescient: you can really hear her growing sensitivity to the textures of various electronic sounds; her confidence in letting her opera-trained voice suffuse the song; her curiosity about the way her favorite pummeling, metallic beats could lend a track pop dynamism or even, later on in the track, the way a song could acquire that same sense of scope without any rhythm at all. Two EPs later, she was turning out recordings like the martial, violin-led “Poor Animal,” a song so huge and precarious and raw, she still hasn’t reached its heights since. It seemed impossible that she wouldn’t be a star – a minor star, perhaps, given her aesthetic proclivities, but remember, too, that in 2010, goth, lo-fi, noise, and industrial were the white-hot styles du jour.
But Danilova was not as ready for us as we were for her, and I’m not even referring to her all-too-evident stage fright. Her sophomore full-length, 2011’s Conatus, was a record decidedly more interested in texture and architecture than in grandiose hooks; it’s telling that the most properly anthemic track from Conatus, “In Your Nature,” was infinitely more interesting and affecting after David Lynch remixed it into a shuffling, bluesy guitar number. The more melodramatic Danilova’s work became, the more obligatory it came off. Last year, when she released orchestral versions of eight previously recorded songs as the LP Versions, even more suggestive of Danilova’s intentions than even the album’s basic concept was the fact that “Run Me Out,” an anguished crescendo of a song from the 2010 breakout EP Stridulum, is rendered not starker and more cinematic than its earlier incarnation, but instead as something amber-colored and richly layered, all wound up in serpentine strings that find the playfulness, warmth, and suppleness in a formerly funereal dirge.
All the while, Danilova was recorded AutoTune-slathered, barely ironic chart-pop with a friend as Nika+Rory, using her room-filling voice to lend a spatial legitimacy Anthony Gonzalez could never achieve alone to M83’s “Intro,” and guesting for Orbital and Pictureplane. She’s spoken candidly in interviews about her love of singers like Rihanna, Alicia Keys, and Beyoncé. The advance line on album Taiga, co-produced by Lynch collaborator Dan Hurley, is that it’s Zola Jesus’s “pop” album, but it’s not like this artist has ever not been directly in conversation with pop. Her songs have never been about aggressively challenging aesthetic sensibilities the way the industrial and noise artists Danilova’s long emulated did; it’s about connection, expression, emotion – all the stuff pop’s about. Taiga is better-produced and differently arranged than 2010’s “Poor Animal,” but it’s no more or less “pop.” Like “Poor Animal,” though, that aspect seems more tangential to Danilova’s project than central, like it just sort of happened because she became interested in a certain palette or sounds rather than the other way around. There are a lot of monumental artificial brass hits on Taiga that could never have been dreamt up before TNGHT and Yeezus (Danilova openly adores Kanye West, by the way), but they function more or less identically to the cold, arid synth hits of, say, 2010’s “Night.” Taiga retains the skittering percussion of Conatus, but Side B in particular indulges the kind of earthshaking drums Danilova’s always loved.
The key difference between Taiga and Danilova’s back catalogue is in the vocals. It’s impossible to reverse-imagine the singing on this record into older Zola Jesus songs; the vocal approaches are just too different. The songwriting, arrangement, and production are most significantly altered in the way they’re restructured to accommodate a singer who’s much closer to contemporary R&B in terms of flexibility, elasticity, and subtlety than to the rigid, upward telegraphic thrust that’s been Danilova’s M.O. until the transitional Conatus. The pre-chorus on “Dangerous Days” sounds a lot like the pre-chorus to “Chandelier” (Zola Jesus once covered “Diamonds,” the song Sia wrote for Rihanna, compounding those echoes), for example, and Danilova drags out the first word of each line of “Dust” in order to work innumerable twists and bends into the melody. There’s no other generic association to make with the deep scooping motion of “Go (Blank Sea)”’s hook than with Rihanna’s dramatic and ever-deepening low-to-high bursts. Most of all, doesn’t the opening melody of “Nail” remind you of something? The eponymous nail is indeed driven into flesh – a Christian allusion, of course, given the moniker Zola Jesus, but in the context of a emotionally wrenching, classically informed female singer-songwriter, also an unavoidable Tori Amos association – but that melody is lifted verbatim right out of a less obviously savage source, Beyoncé’s lovely Frank Ocean-penned 2011 song “I Miss You.” That combination of subject matter, allusive density, and melodic-vocal approach tells you everything you need to know about Taiga. B