Nika Roza Danilova, better known with her stage name of Zola Jesus, represents one of those artists who, although gifted of a fantastic voice that could have guaranteed her a brilliant career in pop or rock, decided instead to devote herself to the world of experimentation and avant-garde, which is definitely more challenging from an artistic point of view view but at the end of the day gave her a fame which is definitely minor than what she would have achieved – presumably – with mainstream music. The association with the case of Bjork is almost immediate. But if the Icelanding singer has shifted with the years towards an increasingly extreme, conceptual and essentially less immediate style of music, with Zola Jesus – fortunately I would say – we’re apparently going through a different process. Her beautiful latest album, in fact, has the capacity to hit us directly to the heart for passion and immediacy, in a way that’s quite unique in her discography. Experimentation, in this case, really seems devoted for transmitting the profound message that the artist wants to convey, rather than to represent a mere stylistic tool or a way to elevate – artificially – the artistic quality of her offer.
Okovi, which is Zola Jesus’ fifth album, arrives three years after her previous LP and represents the result of an experience of isolation and retreat into her hometown in Wisconsin.
Last year, I moved back to the woods in Wisconsin where I was raised. I built a little house just steps away from where my dilapidated childhood tree fort is slowly recombining into earth. Okovi was fed by this return to roots and several very personal traumas.
While writing Okovi, I endured people very close to me trying to die, and others trying desperately not to. Meanwhile, I was fighting through a haze so thick I wasn’t sure I’d find my way to the other side. Death, in all of its masks, has been encircling everyone I love, and with it the questions of legacy, worth, and will.
Okovi is a Slavic word for shackles. We’re all shackled to something—to life, to death, to bodies, to minds, to illness, to people, to birthright, to duty. Each of us born with a unique debt, and we have until we die to pay it back. Without this cost, what gives us the right to live? And moreover, what gives us the right to die? Are we really even free to choose?
This album is a deeply personal snapshot of loss, reconciliation, and a sympathy for the chains that keep us all grounded to the unforgiving laws of nature. To bring it to life, I decided to enlist the help of Alex DeGroot, who has been the only constant in my live band and helped mix the Stridulum EP back in 2010. It will be released on Sacred Bones, the closest group of people I’ll ever have to blood-bound family.
From a musical point of view, the songs of Okovi are full of spectral and dreamy atmospheres, sometimes supported by articulated beats but in some cases suspended and free to develop without any rhythmic construct. And then there is the voice, beautiful, profound and spanning through an incredible tonal range.
This is a disc which could easily represents a turning point for the American singer. The perfect balance that has been found between experimentation and accessibility resulted in one of the best things we’ve heard this year in electronic music.
It’s a release that might disengage fans of her more sub-rosa earlier material of yore, Zola Jesus has evolved into an artist where pop – born from a need to mend from trauma or otherwise – is no longer a recurrent secondary descriptor, but a primary one. Danilova has loosened the shackles that have made this remarkable metamorphosis possible. (The Quietus)