It’s hard to believe Zola Jesus is only two proper albums deep into her career; she’s already been through a world of aesthetic evolution. Nika Roza Danilova’s first album was 2009’s scraping, feral noise-beast The Spoils, an album I could admire but never properly enjoy. So when she followed it up with her Stridulum EP last year, it was a legit shock. Stridulum and its follow-up EP Valusia were as dark and mysterious as The Spoils, but they were also grandly theatrical and melodically warm enough that they worked as something resembling pop music, not an epithet I would’ve ever attached to Danilova’s music before. The music on those two EPs was ballsy and fierce and take-no-prisoners, with Danilova never singing in anything less than a titanic opera-bellow, but it was also tender and personal and comforting. Danilova was making love songs, with a new reserve of sentiment and a serious command of atmosphere. Last year, a playlist of the Stridulum and Valusia EPs became my favorite thing to play when I was putting my toddler daughter to bed every night. And now she’s followed those excellent EPs up with Conatus, the album that delivers on their promise.
Like Stridulum and Valusia, Conatus is a confident, fearsome work of dark, guttural, majestic synthpop. Danilova doesn’t especially like it when people pigeonhole her as a goth, but for many of us, no other term will do. Danilova’s music has the same balance of monolithic weight and vulnerable romanticism as something like the Cure’s Disintegration or Nine Inch Nails’ “Something I Can Never Have,” bleakly hopeful opuses that helped a few of us make sense of the world when we were teenagers. And though Danilova is making assured, grown-ass music, there’s something about it that evokes teenage powerlessness, just as there was with those records. When she tells us over and over on “Shivers” that she won’t be there, it’s a sort of cold dose of reality. When she roars, “I don’t want you to go” on “Lick The Palm Of The Burning Handshake,” it’s doesn’t get a whole lot realer. Even the tough-to-decipher whoops and moans of “Hikikomori” feel more emotionally direct than most other artists at their most plainspoken.
Conatus ends with “Collapse,” its single strongest song. On an album full of cresting synth drones, “Collapse” is the most dramatic, and it gives Danilova a chance to wail across canyons in a way that could absolutely work as the soundtrack to a heartsick prom montage in a teenage-romance movie. And that’s the magic of Conatus: Concrete raw-nerve emotions rendered without compromise, but done in a way that makes perfect pop sense.