Death seems almost too natural a subject for Nika Danilova, a.k.a. Zola Jesus, whose pitch black symphonic pop has always courted oppressive anxiety and doubt in an uneasy alliance bent inexorably toward giving an onerous sense of dread a real musical form. Like many other independent artists who dabble in veiled pop modes, Danilova has only gotten more confident and focused over time, enough that her fifth full-length studio album, Okovi, is at once one of her most sonically intense and thematically inspirational releases. That is what makes it both so intriguing and so disappointing that she would focus the album on a subject so conventional and yet so well-suited to her talents. Death, at this point, seems so safe.
That isn’t unique to Zola Jesus, of course. The idea of death has tormented artists for centuries, to the point that it’s stereotypical territory for “serious artists”. These days, most art about death is less tribute to the fallen and more reassurance for the living, an effort to draw a line around the remote experience of passing through the threshold of death and bring some understanding to those who struggle to comprehend it. The danger of any such art is how easy it is to misuse death and suffering as a prop in the endeavor toward some manufactured sense of enlightenment for the living without offering any consideration for how death operates in the real world as an active, breathing trauma.
Death as a subject, for a lot of artists, is a cartoon, an empty trope, a means to find themselves. Much more powerful art contends with our naive pretensions about what the approach of death means for us while we’re alive — something like Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me from this year, which asks the listener to engage with “real death” as a juxtaposition to its common framing in “serious art”. Everything else obscures death rather than illuminates it.
Zola Jesus’s Okovi, which grapples with Danilova’s authentically painful experiences with the many ways death has manifested itself in her life since her last album, toes the line between a nuanced critique of the ways we tend to talk about death and death as a commercial product. It exists in a stasis between the restructuring discourse and potent intimacy of something like A Crow Looked at Me and the more conventional ruminations on death that tend to ring out like hollow platitudes. The album is stitched together with glitchy, dramatically textured soundscapes and vigorous, operatic vocal performances that alternate between the entropic and the starkly visceral, adding another layer of sonic meaning to the life-and-death dichotomy. Crucially, it draws on the same fabricated mythology of the afterlife embraced by so many others, but it also wrestles with its implications in a less direct way. The result is a thematically dissonant record that survives on the back of its blistering electronics, crushing dynamics, and confident, if often uninspired, emotionality.
This means the weakest moments arise from Danilova’s apparent compulsion toward tepid inspirationality. There’s “Siphon”, a pop anthem aimed at empowering survivors of suicide attempts and chronic depression through unfortunately trite bromides masked in humanist imagery (“We’d rather clean the blood of a living man / We’d hate to see you give into those cold, dark nights inside your head”), and “Wiseblood”, which gives into the same tendencies in service of more generic life affirmation (“If it doesn’t make you wiser / Doesn’t make you stronger / Doesn’t make you live a little bit / What are you doing?”). It’s well-meaning, and musically, the songs are as potent as anything else under the Zola Jesus name, but it doesn’t evoke any of the raw emotion one might expect from someone with such a personal connection to the real suffering around them.
It’s even more frustrating because Danilova proves elsewhere that she can subvert those cliches. “Soak”, for instance, frames a story about accepting death in a serial killer backdrop, the purest artificial melodrama of slasher film lore — as heightened and detached a depiction of death as exists — and yet Danilova takes it as a challenge to ground that conventional and dispassionate framework into something profound about that exact kind of unreal death fantasy. “Take me to the water / Let me soak in slaughter / I will sink into the bed like a stone,” Danilova’s character proclaims, resigning herself to her fate in a way that seems impossible to understand, because of course it is. Death is an abstract phantom, a distant myth, until it’s staring us in the face. It’s fitting that the song has one of the more musically explosive and uplifting hooks on the album; it’s all about removing the shackles of misconception about death that loom so large in our private fears.
But despite Okovi’s sometimes confused priorities, Danilova is ultimately asking us to let go of our prejudices of death, including those which she weaves into the album herself. Okovi is less about exposing our hubris in the face of extinction and more about drawing attention to the futility of the variety of narratives we tell ourselves about life and death that inform and shape our conceptions of our spiritual selves, even as it maintains elements of that same kind of problematic rhetoric. It’s a philosophically messy record, and it goes without saying that it cannot offer us any answers to life’s big questions, but what it can and does do is reorient the questions we ask on the subject, and that can be infinitely more valuable for our understanding of death in the end. We are only mortal, after all.