For many, Conatus will be the first Zola Jesus album they’ve looked forward to. It’s no secret that the critical acclaim of Stridulum brought with it a new audience ready to delve into and enjoy the dark otherworldly sounds of Nika Roza Danilova, along with being rightfully bowled over with her astounding operatic voice. From its release last year new fans have been jumping onto the Zola Jesus bandwagon, taking in every new offering that passed them by (the notable Valusia EP that followed, a dingy collaboration with LA Vampires). It’s only been a year but considering how impressionable the material on Stridulum was, Conatus has felt like a long time coming.
And it also might be regarded as Danilova’s first “proper” album since she ridded herself of all the tinny hiss that preceded 2011. Stridulum was almost a kind of re-birth in a way, starting over with a fresh (and cleaner) canvas. People wanted to hear this new singer produce an album that’s not hidden under the limits of the recording equipment.
But that’s not really fair since the songs on her first record, The Spoils, are inherently similar to those on Stridulum and Valusia, albeit masked beneath the hiss and range of her microphones (and yes, without the live drums). Zola Jesus songs in 2009 still got by with the power of Danilova’s voice and a number of creepy and lingering keyboard notes, much like they did in 2010. It’s only now on Conatus that she seems to be experimenting with the core elements of what one of her songs might be, ditching the keyboards for processed vocals, glitchy electronics and live strings.
“Vessel” and “Shivers” utilize some fidgety electronic backing tracks as both live and processed beats accentuate their rhythmic effect, “In Your Nature” and “Lick The Palm Of The Burning Handshake” fill the empty space between the vocals and drums with quivering strings while core ingredient of “Seekir” is a looping set of backtracked vocal melodies weaving between each other. All are sonically interesting both on small and large scales, and on their own stand as impressionable tracks.
Strangely though, all put together, the effect seems weakened and listening through Conatus can feel rather unmemorable at times. It’s not until “In Your Nature” drops its first chorus and ups its tempo (in a similar vein to “Poor Animal”) that does the album feel like it’s finally giving you a noticeable hook. The preceding songs do have great, if not fantastic vocal crescendos that soar at the best of times, but nothing clicks quite like “In Your Nature” which has a healthy dose of whatever gives a Zola Jesus a “pop” edge.
On the plus side though, the track begins the second half of Conatus where the album opens up a lot more. The main attraction is found in the final two tracks: “Skin” finds Danilova in front of a piano once more but unlike “Lightsick” from her last EP, she lowers the pace and loosens the tense grip the other track had. Alone on piano with little more than a few echoing vocals and the odd peppering of strings for dramatic effect, her melodies shine through, even past the starkness of her voice. “Collapse” is just as sobering but in an entirely different manner. On the final track we find her almost drowned by gently buzzing synths that feel both warm and cold, the effect of which is left more ambiguous as she sings that “it hurts to let you in.” If anything, it feels cathartic, like she’s wiping the slate clean, ready to start all over again.
And I suppose that matches perfectly with the album title, which refers to that ineffable life force that drives something or someone forward, to continue living. The album shows Danilova making a conscious and admirable effort to try take another step in the right direction and for the most part it’s hard to fault her. The songs here are strong but it is easy to miss all those big dark choruses that we were served to us before. But that’s being narrow-minded if anything, and Danilova has earned the right to be considered (and be) dynamic. In an interview earlier this year she rather poignantly said, “What would be the point of making goth music? It’s already been done. I’m trying to do something more progressive.” Much like she sings on the fantastically titled “Lick The Palm Of The Burning Handshake”; “The need to grow, it takes you over.”