Zola Jesus’ ‘Okovi’ Attempts to Grapple with Death, but Falls Flat

On her fifth studio release, Zika Rosa Danilova tries to reach great heights, but ultimately cannot fulfill her ambitions.

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On her fifth studio release, Zika Rosa Danilova tries to reach great heights, but ultimately cannot fulfill her ambitions.

Cover art (Image via zolajesus.bandcamp.com)

The release of “Okovi,” the fifth studio album by Nika Rosa Danilova, or Zola Jesus, marks an interesting point in her career. It’s evident, from the cover art and stylings of her music, that Danilova is making an attempt to be a woman of pop, while still maintaining a gothic persona. On some levels, her mishmash of goth pop is intriguing, unlike anyone else’s take. However, Danilova’s interpretation and arrangement leaves something wanting. Throughout “Okovi,” there is a pervasive shallowness that undermines Danilova’s attempts at reaching at its ideas about death and expressing worry, anger and pain.

Upon first listen, “Okovi” spends no time being bashful, submerging the listener in its synths. The leading track, “Doma,” is more ambient than most other songs on the album and Danilova’s words are hardly discernible. There’s something unsettling in the inability to comprehend the ideas of the song without reading the liner, which is further complicated by the ostensible serenity of “Doma.” The trouble with the leading track, however, comes in as the song reaches its halfway point. Danilova’s pleas of “Take me home” grow tiresome over the same landscape of synth. A few experimental notes, such as the whirring and churning of machines in Arca’s work, would bring the album a little more edge and flair.

“Doma” fades into the tense, quick strings of “Exhumed,” the lead single. Danilova belts, with a choral echoing, “In the static you are reborn.” The song is about the impossible quest to break free from eventual death. The chorus is sung with a counter that encourages Danilova to “Let it sink / don’t let it hold you down,” which helps create tension. The struggle between the passion for life and inevitable outcome of death is poignant, making “Exhumed” a standout track on the album.

The two cuts that follow, “Soak” and “Ash to Bone,” pale in comparison to the strength of “Exhumed.” In a statement a few months back, when Danilova released “Soak” as a single, she stated that the song was intended to be spoken through the character of a serial killer and their victim. As a listener, the swivel from Danilova speaking as herself to speaking as a character, especially a clichéd one, is a little confusing. Even the chorus—“You know I would never let you down”—confounds. What is the message about death that listeners are supposed to take away?

“Ash to Bone,” on the other hand, points out some flaws in production. When Danilova shifts from calling out to crooning, the massive whine of strings cuts right over the vocals and dominates the landscape of the song. All of the elements of the instrumentals seem to be raised at around the same volume, which muddies the overall quality. The key elements of “Ash to Bone,” and many other tracks on “Okovi,” are strings, vocals and synth, much like Bjork’s “Homogenic” from 1997. The mixing on “Homogenic” serves as an example of what “Okovi” should sound like. Danilova also doesn’t have the same expressiveness and control of her voice like Bjork does.

In spite of these factors, “Witness” (not to be confused with Katy Perry’s album) redeems some earlier missteps. The track is measured and slow, allowing the holy bands of strings to come forth and complement the smoky, rich voice of Danilova. She speaks as herself this time, delving into the narrative immediately. The beauty of “Witness” comes from the message of compassion towards others’ feelings, especially those that are traumatic. The chorus is a mantra: “To be a witness / To those deep, deep wounds / To resist it / To keep that knife from you.” Keeping the verbs in their infinitive forms, coupled with the pure orchestral arrangement, gives the song a sense of universality and permanence.

Sadly, “Witness” is the only high point on the album. The song that follows, “Siphon,” is an extension on the themes of “Witness,” but does not add any substance to the themes of compassion and care. The instrumentals on the track are fairly nondescript and boring. The atonal droning in the background hints at experimental composition, but the structure of the song is basic. The chorus is repeated three times, with a lengthy refrain that drills a point that has already been heard.

The remaining five tracks spill out, arranged in a way that doesn’t evoke much strong feeling. “NMO” is a one-minute, dissonant interlude that is bookmarked by two songs, each of which clocks in at over four minutes. Supposedly the track acts as a speedbump, to slow the pace of the album before conclusion, but it’s difficult to decipher what stops and ends. The song that precedes, “Wiseblood,” underlines the imperative of survival on a surface level, and the one that follows, “Remains,” asks twelve times “What remains of us?” yet offers no answers or hints. The only other intrigues in the sprawling latter half are the short, sweet bits of short synth melodies and driving beats.

For all that “Okovi” offers, the album lacks a firm identity. The instrumentals are not transgressive or jarring for an album that relies on industrial, experimental styles, and the songwriting is uninspired. Most tracks lack a catchy hook or riff, which would do good service for the blandness of the lyrics. If Danilova were to increase the complexity and quantity of her verses, as well as pick up an ear for meter and rhyme, then maybe “Okovi” and the rest of her discography would come alive.

Overall, the album fails to live up to its ambitions. The genre splice between pop and experimental or ambient could work, as Arca’s self-titled album back in March did. Danilova is experiencing an identity crisis, not a period of reinvention like many other artists, especially women in pop, undergo. The crisis is most evident in the similarity of the sleeve of “Okovi” to the cover art of Bjork’s “Bastards.” For an artist that has released four albums to date, you would think that Danilova would have some know-how. Maybe there’s no surprise in her lack of commercial success.

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