It’s not the desolate landscape of sickness, skin shedding, pains ‘n’ stains, and the “land of the worm”. It’s not the night-of-the-living-dread thunderous tremors or the Francesca Woodman-esque death veil artwork either. It’s not even that g-force, brain-spinnin’ voice. No, the scariest thing about Conatus is how bloody beautiful it is. Not phony photoshop beauty, more like Edgar Allan Poe’s tales, Nick Drake’s ache, McCarthy’s The Road, Munch’s eternal Scream, Bresson’s Mouchette, Górecki’s Sorrowful Songs, or Bambi. The beautiful and the damned intertwined, burning bright with life and death. Edges where the bless’d and the curs’d collide and appear completely, fleetingly beautiful. But like all beautiful things Zola Jesus’ — aka Nika Danilova — Conatus will leave you dazed, light-headed ‘n’ haunted, and jonesing for a stiff drink long after it has quit town.
It all begins somewhat as expected. The 60-second entrée “Swords” gives you a chance to find your seat and take your jacket off. A moment to acclimate yourself to your new surroundings. “Avalanche” swiftly sparks up where 2010’s Stridulum faded. The trademark colossal synth strings usher us in with malignant sadness. A parade of ghosts shakin’ the machine and tribal beats leading a fogbank of lost souls. Conatus begins how it ends, with unashamed melodrama. “In the end I saw you,” Nika Danilova’s voice epic and ancient, “and it all falls down.” It reveals like a life in reverse, awaking with the final gasp. “Vessel” follows with stabbing Halloween piano chords and earth-shaking, stomping, deadzone drums, hammering for your attention like the heavy boots of the ungrateful dead. The voice, guttural ‘n’ drawn in the verses as if regurgitating buried memories, then illuminated and free in the chorus. “It surrounds all your dreams and it will take you to fears you never know,” she howls, possessed, before smashing head-on into a wall of percussion. From herein, things shift up a gear and you’ll be playing catch-up as the remainder of Conatus pulls your heartstrings so tightly they’ll snap.
With you strapped in, bonded in blood, and here ’til the end, Jesus starts to fire on all cylinders with “Hikikomori”. Its title vaguely translated as “withdrawn”, it has the slow-rolling, slow-drowning majesty of Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”, with Jesus’ towering voice leads a cortège of imperial synths, swaying drums, and the weeping sorrow of a string quartet. With eyes wide shut, she’s desparately clicking her ruby slippers and spiraling the mantra, “All I know I’m home.” Like much of Conatus, the lyrics frame heartbreaking polaroids, as she sings, “Lingering by the stairs, the down I won’t follow.”
It’s definitely night music, but it’s not all full moons and creaky floorboards. “Ixode” (disease spreading ticks, yum yum) has a 4/4 electro, death-disco pulse amid indecipherable shamanistic rantings. Typically, wacky wiccan weirdness soon ensues and the mischievously, invitingly lit dancefloor transmogrifies into a pentagram and — hocus pocus! — you’re now initiated into some ecstatic exorcism, surrounded by candles, wearing a hooded cloak and caked in chicken guts. There also appears to be about five Jesuses a-hollering what sounds uncannily like “Benidorm! Benidorm! I’m going to Benidorm!” Resist though you may, it’s so infectious, elegant and, yes, beautiful, it’s impossible not to slip off your bow tie ‘n’ braces and dive in. “Seekir”, though, is the closest Conatus gets to a pop banger. It’s Jesus swimming back to the surface, reborn, frantically waving her arms, channeling spirits, and talking in tongues: “When the fire bows down it takes us all.” It’s the brightest moment of victory, rebellion — “I wanna go until I never stop,” she sings. As it collapses into the arms of a dozen rewound angels, you’ll feel you’re slipping into the Black Lodge. This twisted sista is what Aguilera’s Bionic should’ve sounded like.
But Conatus is an album rich with highlights. It’s melodrama so operatic, everything’s built to sound like the last song you’ll ever hear. “In Your Nature” is a grade-A pop melody shyly hidden under deep house beats and a rush of violins racing like wild horses over the hill. Jesus’ voice breaks like an earthquake and the killer payoff (“If it’s in your nature you’ll never win”) just floors you. Elsewhere “Shivers” — a possible high-five to Cronenberg’s sex pests — marries twitching, smash ‘n’ clatter house rhythms with what feels like macabre hopscotch skipping nursery rhymes. With lines like “Land of the worm and I won’t be there / I won’t be there tomorrow,” it’s cryptic ‘n’ creepy, but fiendishly contagious. It carries the urgent rush of daylight crawling away.
The struggle between dark ‘n’ light, hope ‘n’ despair drives much of Conatus‘ melodrama. The gospel prayers and processional tattoo of “Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake” (yes, really) mourn like someone being torn apart with its exhausted verses and raging chorus. “I’m the only one that sticks around,” it pleads. It even ends with a chorus of disembodied spirits and the schizophrenic judgement, “I’m the one you need / I’m not the one you need.”
This is all jelly ‘n’ lemonade though compared to its departing duo. The stark piano ‘n’ vocal hymn “Skin” is as drained, disconnected, and final as Bonnie Prince Billy’s “I See a Darkness”, as she sings, “And in the sickness you’ll find me… Skin come off / I’ve had enough.” Folks, it’s a blubfest that’s raw, jaw-dropping, and undeniably powerful. After this, the analogue afterglow of “Collapse” feels like crossing over to the other side, not so much leaving the building as leaving your body. It’s like a dream sequence epilogue that threatens to bloom into “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, a fittingly transcendental end to an otherworldly record.
If you had high hopes for Conatus, sing hallelujah as it not only meets expectations, it confidently shrugs and keeps on flying ’til it’s way outta sight. It’s enchanting, exhausting, cathartic, borderline traumatic, and curiously beautiful to its dying breath. Like all beautiful things, though, it’ll sting a little. If you can survive having your heart ripped out, squeezed, and handed back to you, dinner is served. For best results, devour whole and under starlight. Of the numerous records released this year, who knows which will save us out on the long road. I’d heartily recommend walking with Jesus: God only knows where she’s headed next, though, there is “none more black”. But for now, consider the spell unbroken.