Zola Jesus - Conatus (Sacred Bones Records; 2011)
It’s early mid-January so I’m acclimating to the new year by catching up on 2011 releases I overlooked or, in the case of the album I’m writing about here, tossed off upon first listen. In the case of Conatus, I tossed that shit off hard. I really didn’t like Zola Jesus’ first proper LP after her rise to indie prominence in 2010, going so far as to call a few of the tracks “awful”. It doesn’t sound that dramatic, but I’m the first to cop to liking things a little too much a little too often (though 2012 is kind of disappointing me so far), so “awful” is a pretty strong descriptor from my lips. Returning to Conatus almost four months later I can say that the album is, indeed, not awful in any way shape or form.
I don’t know how others organize their music libraries, but I have a pretty exacting, if not a bit rigid, system. I arrange things into “to listen to”, “listening to”, “previous listens” and “favorites”. I try to keep the former two thinned out as to not get overwhelmed, but there is some old ass stuff kicking around at the bottoms of each list, the oldest being Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, which I added to the “listening to” pile almost three plus years ago. Of course, Conatus was the only thing from 2011 left near the nether regions of the “to listen to” list, having only listened to the record one and half times upon its arrival. I also remember most publications giving it favorable, if not less than ecstatic reviews. So I made myself jump back into it.
I remember, in September, not liking the album, but that dislike never really forming into anything deep seated. Meaning, I forgot about the album, and whenever it was mentioned I viewed it with an offhanded indifference. So by the time I started listening to it again about a week ago, those initial feelings of borderline-disgust seemed distant and incredibly misplaced. Though I do know why those were my first feelings toward the album. I loved Zola Jesus’ 2010 EP Stridulum. A lot. And for pretty specific reasons. Yes, her voice is fantastic. Yes, the simplistic, affecting hooks are there. But the darkened atmosphere, syrupy lo-fi production, and bombastic synths was what really drew me in. On Stridulum Nika Roza built slowly crumbling mountains out of soaring, overlapping synths, toiling in a harsh, abstracted subterranean darkness. Conatus has none of that.
My initial reaction toward Conatus stemmed from expectations, and even though I’ve grown to like the record quite a bit, I still prefer Stridulum. Conatus, for the most part, rids its self of ambiguity and the arrangement complexity and density, despite the addition of strings, just isn’t there to justify it’s sparser production. Look, I know many view reverb as an affect and a crutch in a post-chillwave world, but I couldn’t disagree more. It can totally be used as those things (i.e. chillwave), but Stridulum is a perfect example of how reverb (and copious amounts of it) can be used effectively. Reverb can help the listener inhabit a hollowed textural space and it highlights the music’s color by reflecting the tonal quality back at it. In the case of Stridulum, it does both those things, and helps create that abstracted aesthetic that Roza was obviously shooting for. It also helps that she keeps her voice front and center unlike the chillwave tact of just throwing reverb at everything willy-nilly like an angry infant.
Conatus isn’t reverb-less by any stretch, but it leaves a lot of empty space that was previously filled, and, at times, that empty space is dead air instead of tension-filled as it probably should be (“Skin” is the one exception to all this, which perhaps speaks to a problem specifically with the drums or how the synth/piano is mixed), pushing things way in the background and leaving the middle-ground and foreground fairly untreated. I understand on Conatus, Roza wants the arrangements to be more immediate, especially with pianos added to the mix, but the barren production often leaves things dry and frail where they should be thick and bombastic and propulsive. Everything should match her fantastic voice in size. There’s an atonality to what the songs seem to want to be, arrangement-wise, and what they end up being. There’s also the simple matter of Conatus often employing glitchy, mechanical textures, which is what, I think, completely turned me off on first glance. I still don’t think they’re a particularly interesting pallet choice, but they do work.
So with all my caveats out of the way, I like Conatus, dammit! A lot, in fact. “Avalanche” is a great opener with it’s skipping rhythm and slowly unfolding strings. “Vessel” has a gigantic, romantic chorus with a delicious, booming piano. But, like many have noted, the first half pales significantly in comparison to the excellent latter half starting with “In Your Nature”, which arrives with the first impactful hook on the record. The five tracks that end Conatus are also noticeably simpler than the preceding six. “In Your Nature” is almost all overlapping, ascending string melodies, punctuated by a head-nodding drum loop led by Roza’s soaring vocals. “Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake” is a slowed downbeat dirge with a tear-jerking piano melody, doubling its pace during its billowing chorus and tribally outro. “Skin” is probably my favorite cut. A tragically beautiful piano ballad with a gently cathartic backing vocal melody and subtle cello accompaniment. Every time the piano breaks for the whole note bridge it feels revelatory. I had heaped a lot of expectation for a proper Zola Jesus debut LP, and those expectations still haven’t been met on the promise of Stridulum, but, regardless, Conatus is an extremely good album that still holds enough promise to hold out for the next Zola Jesus outing.
—Will Ryan // January 17, 2012