After a lackluster showing on 2014’s Taiga, Okovi proves that Zola Jesus is still capable of crafting anthemic pop-influenced songs without compromising on the darker elements that have marked the project’s thematic development. The more polished production style that made Taiga feel both “professional” and hollow is markedly absent. These compositions feel much more at place amongst some of the best from Stridulum II; even the cover art seems to quote the same oil-drenched form. There are still some aspects of mainstream pop music that have held over. Yet, here, they evoke an almost uncomfortable sense of familiarity—a malformed feeling of deja vu.
The warm opener ,“Doma,” recalls some of the best moments of Cocteau Twins, immediately signaling a return to the Goth sensibilities that have helped make Zola Jesus a captivating project. The refrain of “take me home” is all too appropriate an opening mantra. That is not to say that Okovi merely rehashes old ideas. Where Taiga tried too hard to be big and bombastic, as expansive as the tundra it evoked, Okovi is an album that holds the listener close and bares its heart to all. “Witness” is almost embarrassingly earnest, but Nika Danilova’s vocals, paired simply with strings, come across as genuinely involved. This sense of restraint and emotional intelligence is apparent across Okovi. Where certain tracks are much more percussive (“Exhumed,” “Soak,” “Siphon”) and indicative of mainstream pop influence, this is overall a restrained album. There are hints of 2000-era hip-hop, trap, and trip-hop mixed among the more prominent drum beats, but their place in the mix is much more supportive, propelling Danilova across ambient stretches and spaces of silence.
Zola Jesus has always been marked by its strong vocal presence, but much of the compositional work present in these tracks shows an artist who’s earned their accolades despite a misstep in output. “Veka” builds slowly out of early industrial scrap-metal percussion into all-out eighties-influenced trance. So many divisive elements seem like a bad—if not questionable—decision, but here they work, never one aspect overshadowing another. In more unskilled hands, the track would be a derivative mess, but here it feels right at home with the gothic and industrial influences that have shaped Zola Jesus. Even the drone and bell interlude of “NMO” feels like a necessary piece of the picture, leading into the anthemic closers. Where “Remains” is a galloping ballad, pushed forward on synths and drum machine, “Half Life” is a soaring motif for strings, percussion, and vocals. One is written for the living, the other is for the lost. That dual nature is what ends up giving Okovi such depth; less that Danilova “gave up” on her dreams of breaking into the Billboard charts, but rather that she focused instead on her strengths and the intentions of Zola Jesus as a project.
The best summary can be taken from “Wiseblood”:
If it doesn’t make you wiser
Doesn’t make you stronger
Doesn’t make you live a little bit
Why do you do it?