Nika Roza Danilova's work as Zola Jesus has always been precarious. The Merrill, Wisconsin native fits theatrical, sometimes abrasive synthesizer music into pop structures, but that line is often hard to tread. Veer too far into pop and you get an album like 2014's Taiga, where boilerplate production and sterile hooks overshadowed Danilova's unconventional streak. Yet the singer/producer's powerhouse vocals and gift for melody would go to waste on a purely experimental album.
Thankfully, Okovi manages to keep both sides of the Zola Jesus persona in relative balance. Inspired by a combination of grief and responsibility, Danilova has crafted songs that dwell on heavy themes without wallowing in them. At its best, the album offers comfort and excitement in equal measure.
Lead single "Exhumed" pulls this off to thrilling effect, using shuddering strings, throbbing bass and snapping hi-hats to emphasize tactile, almost violent lyrics. Throughout, Danilova wrings tension from the smallest tweaks in conventional pop songwriting. "Veka" still trades in hooks, but withholds gratification for slightly longer than anticipated. Danilova pays off these delays with thunderous drums and thumping bass lines for a further jolt.
Okovi's lyrics also take a turn for the maximal, rendering large themes with terse symbolism. "Soak," for example, establishes a sense of obligation with its first line, and while words like "soak in decay / spoil into loam" may be melodramatic, they suit the album's sweeping tone. It's only when Danilova lapses into cliché, as on the carpe diem chorus of "Wiseblood," that these exaggerated sentiments start to sag.
For a project that centres on tragedy, though, Okovi feels remarkably vital. After five albums, Zola Jesus's balancing act remains compelling. (Sacred Bones)