Zola Jesus has made a name for herself with her distinct brand of gothic-tinged electro pop. Her songs are often quite busy: deep, powerful vocals doused with a healthy dose of reverb, intricate electro percussion patterns and multiple layers of piano and synths. Although Zola Jesus’ work within this style has been quite stellar, with 2011’s Conatus being nothing short of excellent, the business of her records has concealed several of her strengths. First, with all the layers within the arrangements, it can be easy to overlook just how good of a songwriter Zola Jesus is. Second, because the synths and percussion are so full and heavy, Zola tends to belt out most of her lines. While she has strong voice that thrives on a powerful delivery, another dimension of her voice has remained hidden from her audience.
That makes Zola Jesus’s latest album, Versions, very special. Versions consists of re-recordings of eight classic tracks, plus one original composition. Gone are the dense synths and pianos; in their place is a string quartet. The electronic percussion is still present, but is much more minimal. With a totally new backdrop, Zola Jesus reveals totally new dimensions of her voice. Reverb is kept to a minimum and most of the time we get Zola’s voice in the raw.
Zola Jesus’ “Fall Back”
The difference is evident right from the opening track, “Avalanche.” The original version from Conatus offers a web synths, pianos, beats and vocals which merge within a melancholic and haunting soundscape. Yet, within the darkness remain elements of resilience: the peppy, high pitched percussion and driven vocal delivery. On Versions, the song is stripped down to its tragic core, with the strings drawing out the pain contained in each chord. Zola sings in a higher resister than usual to match the tone of the violins. Her delivery is pained and relenting, bringing a tragic weight to the chorus, “and it all falls down.” Inversely, the closing track, “Collapse,” brings an element of hope to a piece whose previous incarnation was wholly tragic. While the original version sounds utterly defeated, with high pitched minor chord synths that stab like knives as Zola moans “it hurts to let you in,” the new version offers glimmers of hope, as the violins play a light, floating, major chord counterpoint over the somber minor chord of the viola and cello.
Another highlight is the only original composition, “Fall Back,” an unashamedly open and earnest love song. Zola reflects on being close to her lover as the strings swirl and bubble with excitement before bursting into sheer ecstasy: heavy bass drum kicks in, the strings break into brilliant pizzicatos and fugues as Zola Jesus belts out the line “I would do anything to be the one with you… forever.” In most hands, this sort of line would come off as trite and juvenile, but here the strings and vocals are full of so much joy and conviction that it’s impossible to doubt that Zola means what she says.
The rest of the album is a little less emotionally staggering, but no less intriguing. The simplicity of the string quartet allows the excellent interworking of melodies on tracks like “Hikikomori” and “Seekir” to stand in the forefront. Other tracks, such as “In Your Nature” and “Sea Talk” successfully integrate the danceable electro rhythms of the originals with strings, resulting in a totally unique take on what dance floor music can be.
While it might be tempting to hail one version of Zola Jesus’s works as superior to the other, the truth is that two interpretations are complimentary. In the same way that we always benefit from considering our experiences from a new perspective, Versions is an opportunity to hear Zola Jesus’s compositions from a new vantage point. Considering these songs from both perspectives, it’s hard to not appreciate them more than ever before.
Written by Jael Reboh
OurVinyl | Contributor