Imagine a telephone call deep into midnight with a suicidal friend. You understand their pain and perspective but you know your goal is to do your best to prevent them from hitting the self deconstruct button. What do you say? Nika Roza Danilova’s fifth album as Zola Jesus entitled Okovi sounds like this consequential telephone call.
Danilova tries desperately to connect to the clinically depressed companion by trying to understand their conflicts with the world. “We just want to save you. Pull you from the dark nights“.
Taking into account that the American musician has a habit of adopting words from other languages including “Hikikomori” (Japanese) and “Valusia” (Estonian) from earlier records and “Veka” (Bosnian), “Doma” (Czech) and “Okovi” (Slovenian) on the latest work, it shows she has an open mind and is the right person to analyse such a difficult situation.
Words such as “Don’t let it hold you down, let it sink” from the dramatically angry “Exhumed” and “To keep that knife from you” from the London Grammar-esque orchestral ballad “Witness” show that Danilova attempts to stop her friend from inflicting pain.
However, she also tries a different angle, trying to communicate to their empathetic side about how the consequences of their actions will inflict pain and suffering on the bereaved as well. This is shown by the post-event aftermath lyrics: “You wrote a note, we wrote an eulogy” and “You drain it out, we clean it up for free” from “Siphon“.
It’s worth noting that on Okovi, not all lyrics are targeting her friend. Much of the record is Nika Roza Danilova speaking introspectively to herself about her own feelings of insanity: “With every horror I lose myself along the bend” and her growing feelings of homesickness. She dreams of moving back to her home countryside in Wisconsin and getting back in touch with nature after a stint in Washington State.
On the track “Soak” she combines her routine nihilistic views on death with her feeling that humans are born and return to the soil of nature, addressing Danilova wish to be back to her roots: “Loan by the skin, a vessel with two hands, touch what I can before I hand it in“.
The mood, atmosphere and production of Okovi is crucial to its concept, as it seems to exist within both the world of the bereaved and the suicide victim. It’s echoey, hollow and haunting dark chamber feels as if it’s recording a funeral ceremony inside an empty church.
The shivering cello and choral vocals convey an ominous presence that’s a kin to Björk Vulnicura. While the record also drags listeners into the suicide victims unit of a harrowing limbo. This is conveyed best on haunting instrumental tracks “NMO” and “Half Life“, as well as “Veka”, which uses reverse tape effects and layers of wayward vocals to express lost souls seeking escape.
What’s triumphant about Okovi is how it’s a hybrid that blends the two sides of Zola Jesus that we have seen from her discography so far and corrects the the faults of those two approaches. It keeps the pulse of Taliga, making it dance-able in a lose-yourself-to-the-music rave context but avoids the trap of making a too chart-friendly release that’s indistinguishable from the crowd and forgettable.
The problem with Taiga was also that even though she boldly used strings and brass to give a Woodkid-style epicness, the dance production and time signature is so standard and predictable that it comes across as Sia or MØ paired with Clean Bandit and she lost her gloomy personality amongst it all.
Whilst her darker side of Stridulum II days is cleaned up by removing the distortion and distant low-fi mask to make Zola Jesus messages very clear and comprehensible. Okovi is Zola Jesus’ best work because her concept is clear and cohesive without compromising her unique personality.
Zola Jesus Okovi is out now on Sacred Bones Records, purchase it on iTunes here.
Words by Matt Hobbs