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 now—nothing 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 rhythm—a 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.

Eric Shook's picture

Know first that I am chuckling at my own thoughts. I own this album and it really caught me off guard, initial listening brought images of NYC basement sex dungeons from the movie SEVEN. Later on it did morph into one of my more liked albums this year.

rvance's picture

Are some women that obtuse- or just frickin' cruel? At least you are converting disappointment and desire into brilliant thermal units of creativity. When the right person gets you, you are going to wonder why you are so lucky, why you deserve her. And you will feel bad for all the lonely people who never found love.

Soft Glow's picture

"feel bad for all the lonely people who never found love"This would be a great name for a record album. Really!

Glotz's picture

Sea Talk is pretty good, as well as quite a few others of hers on yr space... Needless to say the reverb and distortion makes for difficult listening, but the 80's influences are there en force, and she possesses a nice grasp of Bauhaus, Jesus & MC, and of course some Siouxie and PJ. She plays her marketing smart by only showing parts of her face, which I find intriguing, and kinda of oblique, but she is controlling her image well. She emotes well though, and I appreciate your heads up here. I think her look is unique, but (musically) she isn't that mind-bending- I think she became a really nice emotional vehicle here, which we all need from time to time. Can you really feel bad for yourself, when you should/want to feel bad for your girl? We've all known women with the same intentions. Maybe one day she'll apologize and not be so callous.

KBK's picture

Men and women think differently. Designed that way.Only when we are each 70-80 years old and our hormones are completely gone...with all of our sharp edges worn down by the rocks of life, we look at each other ...and --fully understand.

nunh's picture

What a load of crap (KBK ^^^) - I disagree :)Wow - this is a sad *ss blog entry - kind of downed me out - Zola Jesus will be promptly checked out though. I hope this plays out for the best...