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Zola Jesus Is Staring Down Life, Death, and Darkness

Nika Roza Danilova, a.k.a. Zola Jesus, is coming to downtown Phoenix.
Nika Roza Danilova, a.k.a. Zola Jesus, is coming to downtown Phoenix.
Tim Saccenti

In 1818, Percy Bysshe Shelley dropped the mic on the futility of human existence with his haunting poem “Ozymandias.”

“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Shelley wrote. “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Shelley died a few years later in 1822, reduced to bones and dust like the mighty he mocked. In a cosmic irony that the poet would surely appreciate, his greatest legacy is a poem about how the only thing that will outlast us is our work. And even those efforts are doomed to be ground into nothing.

The struggle to find meaning when every action is one Etch-A-Sketch shake away from oblivion is a major theme running through Zola Jesus’s beautiful new album.

Named after the Slavic word for “shackles,” Okovi is an album about how life can feel like a prison. Whether shackled by depression, suicidal ideation, or literally held captive, the narrators of these songs are looking for a way out.

Although the subject matter can be bleak, the songs are lifted by Nika Roza Danilova’s soaring vocals. Throughout her work as Zola Jesus, Danilova has used her operatically trained voice to give her songs a sweep and grandeur that many of her gothic contemporaries lack. Citing avant-garde idols like Lydia Lunch and Diamanda Galas as inspirations, Danilova’s singing dominates her work with its commanding presence. She often sounds like a morbid Kate Bush, singing in the flaming ruins of Wuthering Heights.

Echoing Shelley’s sentiments, Danilova sings, “Who will find you / When all you are is dust?” on “Veka.” Inspired by Anna Akhmatova’s poem “Is This Century Worse Than Those Before?” the song faces life’s meaninglessness. Nothing lasts, and yet the song itself, with its insistent goth club beat, rebukes that idea. Who cares if tomorrow leads to nothing when you can listen to something this good today?

In an interview with NPR, Danilova said that many of the songs on her new record were inspired by personal tragedy. Her friends attempted suicide or wrestled with deadly illnesses over the last few years. Part of what makes Okovi feel so powerful is the album’s profound empathy. Even when Danilova is singing about death and dust, she’s arguing in favor of life.

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In the album’s most poignant moment, Danilova pleads with a friend not to give in to suicidal urges on “Siphon,” singing “we’d rather clean the blood of a living man.” It’s a gesture that’s all the more affecting because Danilova seems to understand the impulse. An earlier song on the record, “Soak,” ends up speaking out in favor of suicide. Told from the point of view of a serial killer’s hostage, the song’s narrator chooses to end their own life rather than wait around to be killed. If all we are is dust, the song argues, why let someone else choose when and how you’ll return to it?

Because of the album’s personal details and connections, Okovi feels much more inviting and compelling than the last Zola Jesus record, Taiga. By the singer’s own admission, it was a bid for pop stardom. Songs like “Dangerous Days” and “Go (Blank Sea)” had ambition, energy, and bewitching hooks, but something was missing: a feeling of emotional investment, perhaps. The songs on Okovi sound lived in, and that intimacy makes Danilova’s experimentations with trip-hop, industrial, and classical textures throughout the album even more rewarding.

In her poem, Akhmatova asks, “Is this century really worse than those before?” It’s a question repeated by Zola, who quotes the poet’s lines in Russian. The answer seems obvious. If artists keep making albums as luminous as Okovi, this won’t be the worst hundred years we endure.

Zola Jesus is scheduled to perform on Friday, September 22, at Valley Bar. Tickets are $15 to $18 via Valley Bar's website.

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