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Zola Jesus offers beautiful sorrow on new record ‘Okovi’

| Thursday, September 14, 2017

Dominique DeMoe | The Observer

For Nika Roza Danilova, the musician behind Zola Jesus, “Okovi” — her latest record — was not just the next step in her career, but a necessary life event. “Okovi” came to life as Danilova found herself submerged under layers of depression and darkness. The album’s cover showcases Danilova’s depression, her face obscured by a murky viscous liquid that envelops all but her eyes. Before “Okovi” was produced, a close friend had just attempted suicide twice, another had been diagnosed with cancer and Danilova’s own personal demons had been ever present. “Okovi,” which is “a Slavic word for ‘shackles,’” sees Danilova turn inwards to reflect on the burdens by which we all are weighed down as we live day to day. For some, these burdens are manageable, but for others the struggle to carry on is much greater.

In order to start her work on “Okovi,” Danilova knew she had to remove herself from the waters she was drowning in. Unsurprisingly, she sought comfort in her rural, isolated hometown in Wisconsin, where she built a house deep in its woods. In an interview, Danilova said: “The past few years I had been struggling with a deep depression. I was desperately craving roots and a sense of belonging. It wasn’t until I came back to Wisconsin that I finally realized my roots were exactly where I left them.” While nurturing her mental health, Danilova realized that by turning her negative experiences into a helping hand for others, she too could enter a more peaceful state.

“Okovi” is overwhelmingly dark, both in its themes as well as in the instrumentation she employs throughout. Drums pound, the orchestra plays its strings fervently and above it all Danilova’s voice bellows like a war cry. Danilova is a trained opera singer, and her voice commands attention with the power of a gale-force wind. Remnants of Zola Jesus’ goth pop days are still very much present as well; the opening track “Doma” starts off with chanted lyrics that conjure up images of an empty Gothic church where Danilova performs alone, her voice echoing. At times the synthesizers form what seems like the soundtrack to an eerie horror film built upon suspense, as they whir, click and pulse.

Due to its heavy nature, “Okovi” can start to drag the listener down, but the songs of hope threaded into the album’s tracklist make it more digestible. On “Soak,” Danilova sings from the point of view of a woman who has chosen to kill herself instead of being drowned by her murderer. Speaking of the single, Danislova said: “Through writing this song, the story evolved within me, and I saw how it mirrored my own feelings inside … What’s the point of trying to navigate life if you don’t even get to choose how it ends?” The victim sings, “Take me to the water / Let me soak in the slaughter,” stripping her murderer of power and transforming herself into something that cannot be killed. The middle tracks are filled with questions about why we must endure the burdens we do. On “Remains,” she wonders, “Do ruins give power / Or do they give proof / That something meant more / Than what we lived through?”

While “Okovi” does not provide a joyous ending, it does detail Danilova’s acceptance of the fact that this is the way life operates and that we can only choose the way in which we deal with it. The album ends as though with a victory march with “Half-Life,” marked by gorgeous orchestral work and a noticeably lighter tone to Danilova’s voice. She takes the listener on a journey throughout “Okovi,” and at the end she lends the very helping hand she needed in times of sorrow. Danilova’s eyes shine through on her album cover to show that she has not been brought down yet, and that she hopes to pull the listener back up with her.


Artist: Zola Jesus

Album: “Okovi”

Label: Sacred Bones

Favorite Track: “Exhumed,” “Soak”

If you like: Arca, Perfume Genius, Jenny Hval & Susanna

Shamrocks: 4.5 out of 5

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