Photo: Jeff Elstone

Zola Jesus: Taiga

With her latest release as Zola Jesus, Nika Danilova makes it clear her new aim is to move out of the underground and fully into the pop realm.
Zola Jesus

Previously prolific, Zola Jesus (nee Nika Danilova) has slowed down in recent years. Not counting 2013’s Versions, which featured classically treated renditions of existing material, her last proper album having arrived in 2011. Where Versions seemed more or less in keeping with her previously established artistic direction, classical background and all, Taiga seems a bit of a detour in its venture into full-on pop territory. Less glitchy and gothically brooding than her last studio effort, 2011’s Conatus, Taiga is clearly aimed at the mainstream, a direct move up from the underground, shifting not only labels (Sacred Bones to Mute), but also overall mood and sonic tonalities, taking on the current crop of more dance-oriented pop fair.

While she’d previously made moves into a more electronic direction throughout the course of her several albums on Sacred Bones, they decidedly lacked any sort of mainstream or broader commercial appeal; art music from a burgeoning artist with a powerful voice. Here she’s put her more esoteric and idiosyncratic tendencies aside, instead favoring bigger hooks, production, and choruses, all hallmarks of the current crop of pop tarts.

The strangest part of Taiga is that Danilova’s voice remains largely unchanged, still haunting the darker corners of the pop spectrum while all around her swirl brighter, more socially-acceptable sonic colors and flourishes. Hers is a vocal stoicism that resembles Nico at half the size and three times the range.

It’s clear she’s coming into the mainstream more or less on her own terms, retaining that which made her so special in the first place, channeling it into a more palatable context that will hopefully allow for broader exposure. But is it a sacrifice of previous artistic merit that might result in a backlash from her existing fan base or is it simply a logical artistic progression?

There have always been hints of a pop in her work as Zola Jesus (see “Night” for perhaps one of the better early examples), so it’s little surprise she would ultimately wind up here. What is surprising is how long it took her to get here and the work she produced on her way. Nothing so blatantly commercial as this has sprung up previously, but it’s a far cry from her earliest, blackened noise outings. Gone are the darker, more gothic underpinnings of her previous efforts, replaced by a shimmering, gossamer pop sheen that carries with it only shadow elements of her former sound.

While certainly befitting the times from a commercial standpoint, this change in sonic direction ultimately proves a poor fit for her particular stentorian vocal presence. Continuing with the Nico analogy, Taiga is akin to the German chanteuse tackling disco at its height, going from the visceral starkness and horror of The Marble Index to sub-Donna Summer circa Love To Love Youfair in less than two moves. It’s a jarring transition and one that won’t necessarily sit well with established Zola Jesus fans.

“Hunger”, for example, is a club-ready banger, replete with sputtering beats, synthetic horns and glitchy-twitchy production. As ever, Danilova’s vocals remain languid and slightly slow moving, turning over syllables in her mouth, rarely showing off more than the middle range of her operatic capabilities. Again hitting all the right tones/notes/etc., Danilova sounds bent on following in the footsteps of Lorde, Charli XCX, et. al. onto the pop charts.

“Go (Blank Sea)” sounds even more forced, despite being decidedly in the Zola Jesus tradition, thematically. Throughout, it is the production that proves the most distracting, attempting to shoe-horn a sound better suited to quiet nights alone than a crowded club. She offers competent attempts, but it just sounds as though she’s slumming and settling for commercial viability rather than artistic merit (her label jump might also be an indication of this philosophical sea change). One cannot fault her for looking to cash in on prevailing trends, however it comes across as a bit forced and more than a little sad, given where she’s come from. Thoroughly spit-shined, this is glossy pop for the heavy black eyeliner set.

“Dust” returns to her usual snail’s pace, allowing the words to form and rise from her throat, seeping like lava, oozing and flowing organically with an unhurriedness that belies the impending disaster. Here hip-hop high hats chink away electronically while she explores the sound of her own voice, sounding somewhat constricted all the while and ready to burst at any moment out of the pop trappings laid out for her. Twinges of her past work crop up now and again, but it’s clear she’s moving forward into much more pop-friendly climes, leaving behind the noise and desperation of her previous recordings for something less insular, more universally, if vapidly so, relatable.

“Lawless” returns to the previously established format, featuring a very pop-friendly vocal melody that would not be out of place scoring any number of triumphant promo clips for new fall television programs that will find themselves canceled by the end of the upcoming season. Again her voice sounds restrained, penned in, eager to break free but aware that it needs to play by these new rules in order to get to where she feels she needs to be commercially, artistically, etc. She does it well, it’s just a shame she felt the need to do so in the first place. Soaring and emotive, it scores high on the soundtrack to character liberation as she surrenders herself to artifice. The heavily repetitive outro goes on for a bit longer than it should, never really breaking through to anything larger, despite hints of symphonic bombast here and there.

All of this having been said, the release of Taiga should see her prospects as a performer open up to an entirely new demographic: a wider, more commercially-attuned audience not brought up on gothic darkness and underground noise. This is, after all, the ultimate goal of any performer, regardless of any claims, no matter how vehement, to the contrary. At the end of the day music, and any other form of art for that matter, is a business and in order to continuing making said art, one must strive for at least some semblance of commercial viability. With Taiga, Zola Jesus has cast her lot accordingly, from the hyper-stylized cover image on down through the music itself, looking to increase her overall commercial profile in a move that will hopefully bring the strange beauty of her music to a wider audience. At least for the time being.

RATING 6 / 10