The dictionary definition of conatus is “a directed effort; natural tendency or striving”, something that is utterly apparent on Zola Jesus’ third album. What is evident on Conatus is a desire to change things up from last year’s Stridulum II and her debut The Spoils, to progress from those records and develop. It’s something Nika Roza Danilova has spoken about in recent interviews, in one saying she needed to “destroy and deconstruct everything that I have done in the past and do it differently.”
On the surface, Conatus is not that far removed from its predecessors but look deeper and you’ll find it’s a record that is lusher, richer, fuller than those that have come before; colder, yet almost spiritual in parts and certainly more engaging. Ask her and Nika will tell you about the changes she’s made, switching up synthesized strings for the real thing, changing her allegiances to computer software and on and on. Whether these adjustments in approach have made a big difference to the end result of this album, we can only wonder, but what is for certain is the bold glacial beauty that makes Conatus standout instantly as an incredible piece of work.
Big, bellowed epics comprise the majority of the 11 tracks but, although Nika’s voice is permanently stuck on the setting marked ‘booming’, there’s plenty of experimentation in the dynamics here, particularly towards the end. Penultimate song ‘Skin’ is stripped back to just Nika’s voice, a piano and a monastic chorus of backing vocals that create a halo around the leading lady. Soft cymbal splashes lower the curtain and lead into album closer ‘Skin’, which takes the minimalist sound further, leaving Nika standing lonely in the spotlight, just the hum of distant electro fuzz and spectres of strings for company. It’s stark contrast from the blistering glitchy caverns of ‘Vessel’ and ‘Hikikormori’.
It would be easy to sit Conatus in the pigeonhole labelled ‘goth pop’, along with the rest of the Zola Jesus catalogue but for all its dark moments, the howls of “It hurts me, yes it hurts me” (‘Collapse’) and “Is there nothing left? Will this mess remain?” (‘Seekir’), there are some more uplifting, cheery parts too. ‘In Your Nature’, with its rat-a-tat-tat drums and serene, tranquil strings, provides a break from the anguished chaos whilst lyrics like the committed “I’m the only one that sticks around when they call your name out of the crowd” (‘Lick The Palm Of The Burning Hand’) reflect Nika’s change of heart on the concept of love (the 22 year old recently got married).
A long way from her experimental noise beginnings, Conatus is Zola Jesus’ masterpiece, each song feeling like the record’s peak only to be bettered when the next track is ushered in. If this is how good Nika Roza Danilova is in her early twenties, just imagine what she could be doing in 10 years time — it’s an exhilarating and slightly scary thought.
Stream Contanus in full here.