by Parker Bruce
October is here, and Zola Jesus has released a new album to make us feel the gravity of the cold months even more. So burrow deep because Zola is going to make you emote. But first, a new album begs the question: what happened to Zola Jesus? She has gotten progressively less crazy since she released her first few LP’s, “New Amsterdam” and “The Spoils.” And while “Conatus” is a fine record in it’s own right, it also finds its star playing a bit to safe for comfort.
“Conatus,” is a beautiful, repetitive yet effective record. Everything certainly sounds great: the synths, the piano, the strings, and of course, Zola herself, but almost everything is mid tempo. Most songs never really get going and sometimes it’s like listening to the same Florence + the Machine single over and over. There are interesting music history moments though. On some songs Zola employs Stevie Nicks-style phrasing (“Ixode”, “Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake” with its hitting rain stick pound in the chorus) while others verge on the Pat Benetar-ian (“Hikikomori”). Because the tempos are so well trod and the instruments employed in often the same manner, Zola’s vocal performances also become almost boring. Which is too bad; her vocals are anything but dull when given the correct avenue. When Zola’s vocals no longer feel special, an album has made a misstep.
“Shivers” has a hip-hop-esque clap beat that acts as an example of an intriguing core for her vocals to smear across. I would have never thought club-like dancing could be done to a Zola Jesus song, but this song makes it possible. Other surprises come in the possibility of motion for the listener that tracks such as “Seekir” and “In Your Nature” (which sounds like something off her “Stridlum” EP’s) allow for. The nervous strings in “In Your Nature” give it a moving weakness and timidity, making it one of the best songs on the album. In the first few instants, the listener may think it’s going to be rough going, preparing for the worst, then seventeen seconds in, the track goes around a little bend and suddenly we feel safe, comforted as the strings let us fall into their arms. It sounds happy and hopeful.
At moments, “Seekir” sounds like Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” except with “ahh hey ahhs” shifting in and out of focus in the background like an approaching scary tribe of “Walking Dead” zombies. It has a bounce to it shocking to find in a Zola song because it is so happy. “Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake” with its memorable lyrics (“I’m the only one that sticks around/ When they call your name out of a crowd”) has this expertly patient piano that socks it at all the right moments.
Zola doesn’t do anything zanily new with “Conatus.” She continues with “Stridulum” and “Valusia” checklist: drums, synths, strings, piano, and her roaming vocals. Her origin story LP’s were enjoyably messed up and mussed. She can totally pull off the I’m-wacky-but-you’ll-still-like-me run around of “Conatus,” but where is the weirdo who made “Soeur Sewer” and what made her hide away? We know she’s still there underneath the likable and marketable angst and “sad music” of “Conatus.”
Parker Bruce is music editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org