Slapping a teleology on something is fun, for sure — once you’ve got an endpoint in mind, it’s pretty easy to make everything leading up to it into a nice series of steps in the right direction. In the case of Zola Jesus, it’s almost too inviting to resist. The Stridulum EP enacted the late-aughts buzzband rite-of-passage, abandoning the noise-slathered post-industrial textures and involuted song structures of The Spoils for an unabashed mainlining of hi-fi catharsis, offering critics a convenient critical narrative that framed everything prior to Stridulum as a warm-up for its melodramatic assault.
With the release of Conatus, following on the heels of the relatively similar-minded Valusia EP, it’s getting really hard to talk around that deeply questionable critical buzzword “maturity.” The new album takes the newfound clarity and directness of Stridulum and lets it enter areas other than constant emotional redlining, experimenting with drum programming that does something more than just pummel the listener into submission, swapping out ultra-compressed canned strings for ones that hover uncertainly between digital and analog.
If we’re going by the narrative, Stridulum was just a warm-up for Conatus, giving Zola Jesus the opportunity to gain confidence in traditional song forms so that she could burst out with a compositionally and emotionally varied set next time out. And since your dear critic is a little late getting this review out, I can confirm that our friends at another fairly well known online music magazine have written something pretty much exactly along those lines.
But the thing about teleologies is that they’re about as reductive as a narrative can be. Most of the strengths of Stridulum came from its aesthetic asceticism, its insistence on doing one thing (emotional overload) with about three musical elements, as intensely as possible — besides, of course, Zola Jesus’ breathtakingly rich and powerful voice. The move to embrace a wider range of emotional registers (comparatively speaking, that is; it’s still an emphatic downer) while relying on the same basic textural elements results in an album that gives the sense of constantly itching for a degree of intensity that’s never quite reached. “Avalanche,” Conatus’ first proper track after a brief introduction, illustrates this nicely. It’s a virtual retread of Stridulum’s “Night” in a number of regards, but rather than simply beginning at the climax and remaining there, it holds off and then appends an isolated vocal ending — lovely, but somewhat unfocused.
There are certainly some interesting new twists uncovered, however. I’m a particular fan of that newfound and ever-so-slight melodic looseness in Zola’s singing style, as if some of the current infatuation with R&B found its way into her phrasing, which sacrifices none of her power while lending it just a little more range. Her experimentation with clipped vocal samples, another flirtation with current trends, also pays off pretty well, suggesting that (as always) a swath of interesting options are still available to her.
So let’s not make this the ultimate flowering of Zola Jesus, and let’s not make this her final grand statement (now that earlier releases can’t, because, well, they were just growing pains). Let’s give credit to early releases, to a flagrant lack of nuance, and yeah, I’ll credit that there’s nothing wrong with nuance, but that it still could stand to be a little more pointed than it is here. Zola has one of the strongest voices and most distinctive aesthetics in the game right now, and Conatus succeeds as often as it does (and it does) because it’s still everything we loved about her. Bring on the next one. Make up a new narrative. I’m imagining she’d be into that.