Zola Jesus: ‘Taiga’ Album Review

Courtesy of pitchfork.com
Courtesy of pitchfork.com

A year after Zola Jesus’ monumental performance at The Guggenheim, she has released her fifth studio album, TaigaNika Roza Danilova, the American singer-songwriter who goes by Zola Jesus, claims that this album feels like her debut. In a recent interview with Fader, Danilova said, “I need to face the world and the audience itself. In making the album, I really had to overcome all of my anxiety about being judged or failing… It’s a debut because I’m finally there, I’m present and I’m ready for the world.” Now, under a new contract with Mute Records, whose current roster includes Depeche ModeGoldfrapp, and M83, Danilova is stepping out, embracing her soaring vocals, her love of strings, and her uncanny ability to write a monstrous pop anthem.

The title-track and first song on Taiga opens up gradually with Danilova repeating, “Do you wish you could go back to it all?” before erupting into a chaotic vortex of tribal drums and impending trumpets. The dense drum beats are a staple of Dean Hurley, who is most famously known for his sound work with the filmmaker David Lynch, and who co-produced Taiga alongside Danilova. With her newly found confidence, Danilova’s first single, “Dangerous Days,” is her most immense and catchiest track to date. It involves some sweeping vocals, overpowering violins, and an infectious chorus. It’s the perfect song to appease older fans, who were worried about her new pop direction, but it’s vibrant enough to garner in outsiders. At first, Danilova was scared of approaching her pop sensibilities: “So often when I write pop songs, I’m so ashamed of them that I need to cover them in noise or distortion… When I was done with [“Dangerous Days”], I was proud of it because I didn’t feel the need to destroy it.”

Although Danilova mastered the art of pop on “Dangerous Days,” a few others fell a bit short. “Hunger” and “Go (Blank Sea)” are two of the blandest tracks on the album. “Hunger,” surprisingly, starts off incredibly strong with a speedy violin, but reverts to a mere callous form that becomes too cozy in its repeated chorus. Dean Hurley apparently advised Danilova against the song and didn’t have a hand in the track. However, it’s very bold of Danilova to stick to her art and exemplifies her conviction in it. “Go (Blank Sea)” is a bleak take on pop, with ill-fitting lyrics and a landscape that most symbolizes a desert.

Actually, the rest of Taiga feels incredibly textured and conveys different natural backdrops. In regards to Taiga, Danilova remarked, “It’s overgrown forests, uninhabited mountainous regions that have been untouched by man, places that humans haven’t invaded yet.” It’s an incredibly bold statement, and she tops that mountain’s peak on “Ego,” the shortest track on the album. “Ego” reminds us of Danilova’s vocal range, and her ability to put tremendous force and move a song with minimal instrumentation. It’s easily one of (if not the) greatest track Zola Jesus has released thus far. Danilova excels in the moments where I don’t think she realizes she’s at her best. It’s in those quieter moments, in the gaps, when she manages to bring you along with her, where it’s just you, her, and the overgrown forest. It’s quieter, magical, and freeing.

On “Lawless,” Zola inverts some of the ideals on “Ego.” It’s vocally layered, expressive, and rather optimistic: “I know I was built to make it out alive.” It’s Danilova finally learning to survive by relying on herself, after exploring these different landscapes. She’s a one-woman warrior, who’s discovering new land as well as herself. “Nail” is another incredibly powerful song that opens up for over a solid minute with her bare vocals. It’s bold and oddly Christ-like, with her singing, “Set me free / Pull the nail out with your teeth.” It contains some of Danilova’s incredible songwriting capabilities without trying to fit in to one boxed-off genre.

The final three songs on the album all follow this pathway to discovery and, albeit, self-discovery. “Long Way Down” is Danilova making a realization, “Hollow” involves her finding clarity, and “It’s Not Over” is her relinquishing something that was once holding her back. Taiga is a journey into the natural world and into the creative process of Danilova. It’s equivalent to process art, and whatever process she chooses, we know it’s going to be bold, confident, and intrinsically complex.