Crikey, the Guggenheim. The ‘Temple of the Spirit’. Yup if you want to wrap up your world-tour shenanigans in style, it’s definitely preferable to do so at an illustrious Modern Art Mecca rather than the Nag’s Head Bar & Grill in Slough. If you can also do so with a swanky string quartet and a Zappa-esque, Gonzo genius with enough aliases to make you suspect he’s some subterranean supercriminal (Arranger JG Thirwell AKA “Foetus” AKA “Scraping Foetus off the Wheel” AKA “You’ve got Foetus on your Breath”) then damn Ma’am you’re flying home First Class. That Nika Roza Danilova—AKA Zola Jesus, it’s all superhero codenames around here—subsequently exits the building by (literally) ascending Guggenheim’s spiralling walls into the heavens with a neon caterpillar wrapped around her neck…well that’s one bad ass way to hail a cab.
Luckily for us poor folk who couldn’t blag our way onto the guest list or who were under maximum security lockdown in May 2012, Jesus has recorded the Guggenheim hoedown, Deluxe Redux string set as Versions. Basically it’s Jesus’s greatest hits thus far, the bulk of which crosses over from her celestial third album Conatus. Forcefield disengaged and stripped of her trademark Apocalyptica Electronica white noise, it makes for an intimate, affecting experience. Jesus’s music often sounds as if it’s being broadcast from a towering mountain peak with Danilova electrified, the Bride of Frankenstein reborn, beneath a burning moon, prophesying Biblical catastrophe—Y’know parting seas, plagues of locusts and the like—but Versions dials down the tempestuous thunder yet retains much spectral splendour.
Versions begins, as did Conatus, with “Avalanche”. The drawn, elegiac drag of cello and aching violin is so exquisitely, intensely framed in its moment you could hear a pin drop a thousand miles away. “And you never let it go / ‘cause it all falls down,” digs Danilova with all the submerged resignation of Kōbō Abe’s Woman in the Dunes. Alongside the manic, Merlin melancholy of the Mivos string quartet, Jesus’s powerhouse pipes—classically trained no less—sound hypnotic throughout. Danilova intended Versions as her opportunity to finally send these songs back to their imagined homeland of strings rather than synths, by cutting the music “back to the bone.” Stripped of their electronic armoury, they often appear cut further still, back to their very spirit of melody.
The other lost souls from Conatus shine equally brightly as transmogrified will-o’-the-wisps. A throb of stabbing staccato strings propel the impulsive pulse of a passionate “Hikikomori”. Jesus conjures and claws the melody to the surface, “Lingering by the stairs / The down I won’t follow…All I know I’mmmm home.” It’s bloody, raw and f-f-frosty. “Seekir” is one of the few spirits to retain its electronic ancestry, gliding by on a 4/4 disco backbeat, multi-layered ZJ clone army vocals and, fleetingly, a full-on Studio 54 ‘Ride a white horse’ bass breakdown. It whips ‘n barks to a frantic hurricane crescendo with ye olde strings and Da Futurist Electronique duking it out for supremacy whilst Jesus’s spins entranced and speaking in tongues, “I wanna gooooo until I never stop!” It maybe cheating plugging in the machines, but it illuminates this midnight highway like a UFO driveby.
Versions isn’t just a strings ‘n sighs, erm, version of Conatus though. There are three tracks from 2010’s breakthrough Stridulum II. The exhausted sorrow of “Run Me Out” now contains 100% More Exhausted Sorrow. with the strings swooping and diving like Raven’s wings, sweeping lush new melodies into the smouldering cauldron. It’s also freshly bequeathed a rich, Eastern feel and a crypt kicker “OK, Who’s been reading my Book of the Dead?” drum tumbling finale. “Sea Talk” and “Night” still sound like monster hits from some parallel universe. The former rises neon neo-gospel, resurrectionist, “Give me one more try / Before I fall apart / Fall into the sky.” A perfect storm of Jesus’s sincere vocal, sparse electro shuffle and cinematic, soulful strings. As it fades, Danilova releases a parting cry that’s pure opera. A taut “Night” meanwhile unravels like the final act of a Greek tragedy, “In the end of the night we’ll rest our bones.” The strings fall and swing like scythes. Sounds depressing as hell in theory but as with much of Versions, emerges cathartic, invigorating. Sole new track “Fall Back” is a tantalising teaser for album four, another trojan horse pop beauty. “I am not afraid to let go / Of all the history that pushed me over,” yearns Danilova recast as Hamlet’s lovestruck Ophelia, “I would do anything to be the one with you.” Heart on sleeve, ultra-romantic and therefore doomed, it simmers to a frenzied finale so fiery the entire string quartet spontaneously combusts. Possibly.
Versions departs with two of Conatus‘s most bittersweet stings. The tribal “In Your Nature” rolls like the redemptive rising of a new dawn. Slowly leading its carnival of souls toward the euphoric, pseudo-rave, flooring chorus—via a new tripped out, psychedelic kaleidoscope bit—it’s surely ripe for an enormo-banger remix. It’s longing to lift you out of your skin. Alternately, a fittingly desolate incantation of “Collapse” stands with Billie Holiday serenity lamenting a moonlit requiem. The afterlife of the party. “I’ve got no war the day you go away,” resigns Jesus, calmly handing in her Sheriff’s badge before sailing away into the sunset. Well before climbing up Guggenheim’s spiral wall whilst wearing a neon caterpillar.
Conatus may remain Jesus’s most perfectly bewitching hour but it would be foolish to dismiss Versions as a ‘lend-us-a-fiver ‘til payday’ stop-gap between ‘proper’ albums or merely Conatus Unplugged as it’s infinitely more valuable than that. Not only does it contain some elegantly poignant manifestations of many of Jesus’s finest sermons but it also continues to mark out Danilova as one of the most intriguing artists to emerge in recent years. Slowly, out of the darkness, into the light.
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// Notes from the Road
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