Review: Zola Jesus - "Versions"

Zola Jesus - Versions
(2013 Sacred Bones)
"Zola Jesus is revolutionizing pop music."

Zola Jesus is revolutionizing pop music. Revamping the generally electronic songs she's compiled over the last three years, Nika Danilova's solo project ventures into minimalist territory on her newest LP, Versions. Teaming up with composer J.G. Thirlwell (of Foetus) and the Mivos Quartet, she is almost exclusively backed by a vibrant bed of strings, giving listeners a bit of a glimpse at her former career as an opera singer. Despite the change of pace provided by her new backing band, the focus of Danilova's songwriting remains the same. She extracts the essence of pop in its purest form, harnessing it in a way that only a few--Prince, Bjork and Sinead O'Connor for example--have been able to. Zola Jesus has already proven herself on previous LPs; Versions is just further proof of her songwriting genius. Her music focuses more on intimacy and emotion than production and style. Her lyrics, her hooks, and most of all, her striking vocals transcend genre. Whether backed by synths or strings, they're equally impactful.

Versions kicks off with a redone version of my favorite cut from 2011's Conatus, "Avalanche". As deceptively simple as the original version, it's the most stripped-down effort on Versions. The track's strings perpetually flutter in the background, leaving plenty of empty space for Danilova's operatic delivery to fill. It also makes room for the quartet to introduce subtleties as the song progresses. The track opens following a rigid structure, but its construction slowly collapses, the chaos crumbling into an austere conclusion. "Avalanche" is followed by another one of the best selections Versions has to offer. Its inclusion of a drum machine might at first seem strange, but the percussion is unobtrusive enough to guide the strings along without overshadowing them. With a nearly theatrical opening and powerful chorus featuring plucked violin, it's the song most likely to stick with you on this record. "In Your Nature" is another solid cut, slightly reminiscent of Florence and the Machine's more memorable moments. Blurring the distinction between art and pop, Zola Jesus only continues to improve with each effort. Hopefully Versions isn't her peak LP.