Following her powerful 2010, the sharp bet in indie circles was that Zola Jesus, aka Nika Roza Danilova, would be the next unlikely pop breakthrough. How could she not? Danilova’s voice packs a punch that is on the level of Winehouse or Lady Gaga, she’s different enough to appeal to a wide range of fans, and her two 2010 EPs, Valusia and Stridulum, were full of goth torch songs, and New Order-like synths. It seemed like Zola Jesus was one iPod commercial away from being the Next Big Thing.
But now, with her new LP, Conatus, it’s clear that Zola Jesus won’t go gently into that spotlight. After two EPs that found her exiting the lo-fi cave she resided in on her first buzz-gaining releases in 2009, she returns (slightly) to the hidden vocals and hard to decipher lyrics of her earlier work, combined with a more generic industrial thrust underneath. The cover here turns metaphorical: At a time when she could be out front, Zola Jesus is behind a shroud. Again.
Which isn’t to say Conatus is a major misstep, because it’s isn’t, necessarily. The two EPs from 2010 maybe set too high a standard from what to expect from a Zola Jesus LP, as the shorter run time upped the impact of material like “Night” and “I Can’t Stand.” The best stuff on Conatus gets close to the heights of the best from the EPs: Lead single “Vessel” has Nine Inch Nails like instrumentation under one of Danilova’s most expressive operatic vocal performances, while “Avalanche” has a chorus ready for the end of a romantic indie. The piano and strings-led “Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake” and “Skin” are two rare cuts: They both introduce a much-needed change in the sound of the album, away from the machined crunch of the rest of it.
But the balance of Conatus comes off a bit too formulaic and familiar; after a while, you realize it’s sort of one-trick, with Danilova pairing her– admittedly stunning—voice and platitude-heavy lyrics with stomping electro beats. That sound never grows old on an EP, but on an LP, it can, and does. Conatus doesn’t necessarily smash Zola Jesus’ hype, but it certainly does temper it.