A grandiose, emotional journey toward the light.
For someone with such a reclusive aura, posting pictures of secluded forests on Instagram regularly, Zola Jesus (aka Nika Danilova) is bordering on the prolific. Having released four albums in six years, Okovi is her fifth full length, following up a three-year break after Taiga. The tumultuous events of the last three years – from Danilova’s struggles with depression to her friend’s attempted suicide – contributed to the gloomy, gothic quality of Okovi. But “Okovi” meaning shackles, and the album being the result of Danilova moving back to her childhood home and purging herself of a lot of pain and grief via these cathartic songs, means that, despite the album’s overwhelming darkness, Okovi serves as a grandiose, emotional journey toward the light.
With such dark thematic throughlines, the album seems to naturally fall into pairs, each enriching the other and deepening the listening experience. Opening with “Dom,”( literally “home”), Danilova begins her journey back to the security of familiarity and to a better mental state as her voice reverberates, whispering “Take me home” over an echoey synth. Stylized as a hymn, it’s a surprisingly stark, intimate opener from an artist so well-known for her love of clangy industrial music. Its calm, though, only serves to provide a bold introduction for lead single “Exhumed.” Over gritty, sawing strings and tranced-out synths, Danilova’s soaring voice erupts, “In the static you are reborn,” as another angelic recording urges, “Let it sink/ Don’t let it hold you down.” The song’s animalistic lyrics are brutal, its sounds violent, but the message complements the hope that comes with starting over from the beginning.
Although the album is thematically consistent, Danilova still stretches her songwriting while paring back the poppier tendencies displayed on Taiga. Trippy synth tracks, grating industrial offerings and orchestral ballads share the stage harmoniously and help to balance Danilova’s moments of defiant calm and wild rage. Just as “Doma” opts for the spare and somber, so too does “Witness,” a chilling, cello-driven ballad that sees a measured Danilova pour all of her love into the lines “To be a witness/ To those deep, deep wounds/ To resist it/ To keep that knife from you.” Whereas “Siphon” is addressed to someone considering suicide, it forgoes the classical route for the quiet clamor of industrial thrums that open up into lush gated beats, all while Danilova hauntingly chants “Won’t let you bleed out/ Can’t let you bleed out.”
The supportive lyrics on “Siphon” make for a less than ideal transition to the existential panic of “Veka,” which asks, “Who will find you/ When all you are, all you are is dust?” But that morbid, defeatist question is squashed by Danilova’s own version of a mantra on “Wiseblood”: “If it doesn’t make you wiser/ Doesn’t make you stronger/ Doesn’t make you live a little bit/ What are you doing?” Penultimate track “Remains” gives the best answer to the question of “What remains of us?” in saying that ancient ruins and lasting signs of life are physical proof, “That something meant more, something meant more/ Than what we, what we lived through.”
With such dour subject matter, it’s hard to imagine that Okovi can be an enjoyable, uplifting listen, even musically. But Danilova puts these dark thoughts and events to blippy dance beats (“Remains”), epic blends of electronica and hip hop (“Soak”), ambient swells (“Veka”) and purely instrumental tracks (“NMO,” “Half Life”). After three years, Danilova rightly has a lot to say, but perhaps the most intriguing element of Okovi is how much she puts her commanding, operatically-trained voice second to the instrumentation. Her arrangements never become overwhelming, but she allows them to take control, to convey her unbridled emotions where her voice and lyrics come up short. It shows not only faith in her collaborators but confidence in her silence to speak as loudly as her stark, pointed lyrics.