Album Review: Zola Jesus—“Taiga”

By Carey Roach, Feature Photo via Under the Radar

Imagine if Grimes and Florence Welch had a love child. And then, imagine that Rihanna was that child’s cool older sister who slowly started to rub off on her. That child is Zola Jesus, and oddly enough, she’s really starting to sound like her big sister on Taiga.

In the past, Zola Jesus, whose real name is Nika Roza Danilova, has been known for creating lush, atmospheric and sonic soundscapes that make you feel as if you’re being transported to a new universe. On the American singer-songwriter’s fifth record, Danilova takes a new direction, and releases the closest thing to a pop album that I have ever heard from her.

Album opener and title track “Taiga” is beautiful art pop at its best. It’s three perfect minutes of ethereal yet dark vocals and synths. “Long Way Down” is upbeat experimental pop with an infectious synth riff.

Other songs are pure pop. “Hunger” and “Ego” wouldn’t sound too out of place if they were sang by Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus instead. These tracks are conventionally catchy and surprisingly danceable.

One aspect in which Taiga really shines is the vocals. While creating the record, Danilova took a new approach by initially writing the songs a cappella, and adding instrumentals afterwards. Her voice really benefits from this different direction as it becomes the focus of most of the tracks, which it is undoubtedly deserving of. Intensely emotive and dark, Danilova’s voice is exceptional, especially on tracks like “It’s Not Over” and “Nail”, which uses layered vocals in one of the most satisfying ways I have heard in a long time.

Album art for Taiga

Album art for Taiga

However, some songs almost feel generic, which is a word that I never dreamed I would use to describe anything made by Danilova. This record certainly feels safer than earlier Zola Jesus albums. Things are notably less experimental; gone are the unconventionally pretty instrumentals and haunting ambience of Conatus and The Spoils. They have been replaced by average and somewhat uninspired synths and percussion.

It’s true that Danilova is always evolving. For instance, her 2013 record Versions was a collection of ten beautifully crafted songs centered around a string quartet, which seemed miles away from her usual experimental dream pop. But in many ways, her most recent evolution seems to fall flat. It feels less like positive evolution, and more like artistic floundering.

It’s not that Taiga is a bad record. In fact, it’s a really good pop record. Tracks like “Hollow” and “Go (Blank Sea)” are catchy but still pretty. But, I can’t help but feel that she is capable of more. I no longer feel as if I get lost in the strange but wonderful world of Zola Jesus while listening to Taiga. And that is certainly disappointing.

Although Taiga is definitely still worth a listen, it lacks the experimental and atmospheric beauty that longtime Zola Jesus fans have come to know, love and expect from the creative singer-songwriter. (Mute)

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