Zola Jesus: The Spoils
It was a bit of good fortune. It was a rainy Saturday afternoon in late August. It was the perfect thing at the perfect time, like Hemingway in autumn or Whitman in winter or a lot of stuff I can't think of right nownothing refreshing, but something comforting: chocolate after wine, the smell of someone familiar when you're feeling all alone, I don't know. Monica had just called to tell me that she was back from her trip; she wanted to meet for a drink. I know very well that Monica is not the right person for me, but sometimes the right person is not what you need, is not the right thing at the right time.
I set the record on the platter and turned up the volume. It was The Spoils, by Zola Jesus.
This is not an audiophile recording, not a Recording of the Month, but it sounds like heat on the hi-fi and you'll want to turn it up. It sounds better than you think. It almost always begins with a slow, churning rhythma simple thing that hints at acceleration, but never truly accelerates. Zola Jesus elevates. Never with speed, but with weight, texture, a claustrophobic emptying of space, echoes. These songs begin and end abruptly, like tangents or visions or certain relationships, with a sort of pain of expectation, an insatiable desire to come slowly and stay longer.
There are questions I'd like to ask Nika Roza Danilova: What is this all about? What is your story, really? What kinds of tragedies, miracles, and other things take place in the life of a 20-year old girl living in Madison, Wisconsin? Why did you ever stop singing opera? Your voice is beautiful. What are you hiding from? Who hurt you? Are you okay now?
It's silly. These are the things raised by her art, meaning that it has the look and sound of something intensely personal and specific and true. You want to know her, Nika Danilova, Zola Jesus, whoever.
Over drinks, Monica says she's been seeing someone. It's not a complete surprise; I sort of had a feeling. I am not hurt, but a bit disappointed (in myself, mostly). "Do you want to meet him?" she asks. "Yes," I lie.
This is the darkest sort of pop music, heavy with a need to be loved, yet too afraid to show itself simply. I can't understand the words, but I sing along anyway. There is the sense that she is in trouble, insecure, surrounding herself with a wall of sound. Danilova cites as influences Lydia Lunch and The Ronettes, Throbbing Gristle and Alicia Keys, and this makes perfect sense. "Devil Take You" recalls the Soft Cell version of "Tainted Love," but with more weight and hunger. "Lullaby in Tongues" is a brief reverie interrupted by atomic bursts of serrated noise. "Smirenye" is a child hiding beneath a sheet begging to be heard, a lover offering apology, appearing so sweet and soft and vulnerable, there's nothing you can do but accept and move on. You are shocked, disarmed by these torrential synths, thick bass lines, cymbal splashes, tinkling percussive elements, distorted waves of song. It's maddening and compelling and there's nothing to do but listen. It makes you want to take her back, to try again.
Over dinner, she says she'll be seeing him on Saturday, but who knows, by then she may not like him anymore. I shrug and pretend not to care.