Cathedrals always seem to inspire awe in a way independent of religious affiliation. The infinite reach of soaring ceilings infuses grandeur into the air; curved arches cradle simple elegance in their graceful lines. A hush stretches indefinitely through the gaps of pews: a space for reverence and reflection.
“Doma,” the first track off Nika Roza Danilova’s (recording under the name Zola Jesus) fifth studio album, Okovi, ignites a similar sort of introspection. Compositionally, the track is sparse: the harmony of ambiguous vocals and white noise fades in and out. Yet, despite its uniformity, the song captivates. Its gossamer hum creates a space for Danilova’s voice to reverberate into towering points and lofty canopies — the faint outline of a cathedral begins to take shape. “Doma” flickers like a candle at the altar of Okovi, introducing a deeply personal album awash in unrestrained layers of emotion.
From “Doma,” Zola Jesus wastes no time developing its hazy form into a solid presence. The second track, “Exhumed,” pulls the original flat ambiance into a dynamic collision of cutting instrumentals and feverous beats. If “Doma” was the consistent gray of an overcast sky, “Exhumed” is a torrential downpour, primal and inhibited. In this sudden expansiveness, Danilova is a powerhouse: projecting, “Bury the tongue between the teeth / Open the jaw and sink in deep” from the heavens with an intensity that splinters and a desperation that is almost overwhelming; a catharsis that threatens to wash away the earth.
“Exhumed” flows into “Soak,” a track that maintains the same forceful undercurrent of sincerity but mellows from the jagged explosiveness of “Exhumed.” Withdrawn tempos and controlled rhythms create a muted repetitiousness that forms a sense of disillusionment; deadweight hangs from every aspect of “Soak.” The overall lifelessness of the sound corresponds with the hopelessness of the lyrics themselves, exploring the futility of life.
It’s a bleak perspective; one that is quickly contested through songs “Witness” and “Siphon.” Both hold a more hopeful sentiment. The simple balance between Danilova’s vocals and the quiet instrumental background weaves a desire for others to see their own potential into the melody of “Witness;” the unyielding chorus of “’Cause we’d rather clean the blood of a living man / We’d rather lean over, hold your warm, warm hand / We’d love to clean the blood of a living man / We’d hate to see you give into those cold, dark nights inside your head” in “Siphon” fights against apathy and self-destruction. The dramatic shift in temperament between “Soak” and “Witness” or between “Siphon” and the darkly existential questionings of the song “Veka” is abrupt and unexplained.
Zola Jesus seems to be debating with herself, ruminating on the meaning of life under the inevitability of death. Her songs offer no answers, only half-finished explorations of contrasting arguments.
The jumble of incongruity is difficult to keep up with, yet powerful all the same.
More than anything, Okovi is an album created by Zola Jesus for herself. Rather than a concise narrative, it is a passionately pieced-together collection of intimate thoughts and past experiences. Fears, doubts and unanswerable questions come together to form a holy ground, a place where the shackles that burden Zola Jesus start to feel a little bit lighter.