Nika Roza Danilova’s voice seems biologically-engineered to convey longing. There are different strains of longing, of course: there’s romantic longing, hopeful longing, confident longing and even longing that’s laced with the faint tang of panic. It’s that last one Danilova’s is best at: in live performances, she has a tendency to stomp forcefully from one end of the stage to the other, over and over — a pint-sized Lady Macbeth frantically trying to self-exorcise. Even when it’s unclear what she’s singing, the way she sings it is enough to generate shivers.
Appropriately, Danilova’s voice — which occasionally seems to imagine Siouxsie Sioux in a High School production of Evita — has always been the centerpiece of the songs she records as Zola Jesus. In the past, it was beamed through layers of static, like a lighthouse struggling to puncture dense fog. While it often made for arresting listening — on “Dog” from The Spoils, it sounded as if she were singing while being smothered — her past full-lengths often felt like they were more about texture than composition. But on Conatus, as suggested by the two spectacular EPs Danilova released last year, the songs at last have fully crystallized around her. They’re built mostly by stretching blue bands of synth across drum tracks that clatter like dancing skeletons. On “Hikikomori,” keyboards flicker on and off like strobe lights, and Danilova sings as if balled up in the fetal position in the corner, her voice (which may or may not be saying “I’ve got sister in my hands”) as pain-wracked as ever. In “Seekir,” it soars confidently over the kind of minor-key electropop backdrop that got trotted out in the ’80s any time a director needed a soundtrack for a vampire disco.
Which brings up another point: people like to use the g-word when talking about Danilova’s music, but there’s a level of both manufactured drama and manic overstatement to goth that’s wholly absent from Conatus. Danilova’s songs instead sound like they’re coming from somewhere darker and less precise — a deep plunge into an icy stream of consciousness. It’s impossible to draw a bead on their literal meaning, but there’s a kind of sensory meaning that feels both more profound and more affecting. Take “Skin,” a quietly devastating ballad that arrives late in the record. The song throbs with a kind of shapeless sadness, its piano accompaniment gradually dissolving from lurching block chords to dizzying, disorienting arpeggios. The lyrics can be parsed only in brief flashes — “In the sickness, you find me,” and “In this hole I’ve fallen down” — but their combined impact is wrenching. Like much of Conatus, the song drifts by like a dream; fragmented but vivid, non-linear but deeply unsettling, its effects lingering long after the light begins filtering in.