Music

Zola Jesus: Conatus

Photo: Angel Ceballos

Jesus loves you! Yes, YOU! So it'd only be polite to love her back, yes?


Zola Jesus

Conatus

Label: Sacred Bones
US Release date: 2011-10-04
UK Release date: 2011-09-26
Artist Website
Amazon
iTunes

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 Its title vaguely translated as "withdrawn", it has the slow-rolling, slow-drowning majesty of Joy Division's "Atmosphere", with Jesus' towering voice leads a cortège of imperial synths, swaying drums,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.

8

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11
Amazon
iTunes

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image