Nika Rosa Danilova’s Zola Jesus project has always had lofty ambitions, peaking with last year’s orchestral career-summation Versions and accompanying Guggenheim exhibition. After that, it seemed like her vision could take her anywhere—and “anywhere,” it turns out, was Vashon Island in Washington, where her latest album was largely written. For inspiration, she reached farther out still to the taiga—a type of forest typically found in Russia, desolate enough to border tundra and resilient enough to cover large swaths of the earth. “I like that idea that [the taiga is] full of life—it’s not desert. It’s very much full-blooded, but no one’s civilizing it,” Danilova told Fader earlier this year, and indeed, the taiga’s as fitting a metaphor for Zola Jesus’s music at its best as anyone could produce: cold like a mountain, brutal in its inhospitality, but life-affirming if you take the time to burrow in.
Taiga is Danilova’s “pop album,” a tag that’s been somewhat overstated. Yes, it’s her first full-length on the relatively deep-pocketed Mute, as well as her first with co-producer Dean Hurley (David Lynch, Danger Mouse); and, yes, she told Billboard that she wanted the album to top the charts. But Taiga doesn’t sound perky, lightweight, or even radio-ready. Lead single “Dangerous Days”, originally written for the 2011 LP Conatus, has the makings of pop: a gentle throbbing beat, post-chorus synth comedowns, and lyrics that suggest a sideways view of a seize-the-day message. But it’s no closer to dance music than Conatus’ “In Your Nature”, and maybe even less hooky than fellow Conatus cut “Vessel”.
If Taiga nods at pop, it’s mostly in the songwriting–more streamlined, less atmospheric–and Danilova’s vocals, which are cleanly produced and more accessible. She’s mentioned studying Rihanna in particular, and you can hear it in the low, “Diamonds”-smacking strain of “Hunger” ; pop-approaching styles are evoked elsewhere in the vocal swoops and R&B curlicues of “Go (Blank Sea)”, the steady handclaps of “Hollow”, and the gentle-but taunting rhythm of “Dust”.
Taiga‘s strongest moments actually come when Danilova’s sights aren’t explicitly set on pop music. True to its title, “Hunger” sounds emaciated, with fuzzy brass, vague hints of a string section, and exhausted, skittish vocals; even the percussion break sounds like it’s been worn to the bone. Despite the pep-talky lyrics, it doesn’t sound like an anthem so much as a mantra clung to, half-breathless, during a fight. (“I’m not getting younger/ I use it, abusively,” is even more striking of a lyric when remembering that 25 is a fairly young age to mind the clock this desperately.) If “Hunger” sounds starved, much of Taiga sounds over-full, and not necessarily in a bad way: “Ego” calls back to Conatus by wielding film-score ambience to impressive effect, and the opening title track sets the stage with atmospherics, drops a drum-and-bass loop over it like sudden light, then stops things short with an imposing tectonic plate of a brass theme.
But too many songs on Taiga come across as filler—too small and formulaic to impress at “taiga” scale, but too leaden to reach anthemic heights. “I wanted to make a huge pop song that would break in and reach people I’ve never been able to reach,” Danilova told Pitchfork earlier this year. In reality, pop’s never been that far of a reach for her, so what’s most frustrating about Taiga is how much more huge it could be.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1vSdpbk