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Zola Jesus’ String-Laden ‘Versions’ Finds Warmer, Subtler Goth-Opera Catharsis

Zola Jesus / Photo by Matthew Eisman/Getty Images
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: August 20, 2013
Label: Sacred Bones

Little-known fact about Zola Jesus: She’s a soprano. Classically trained in opera, the 24-year-old singer born Nika Roza Danilova exalts in the murky, gothic boom of her songs, with deep swoops that evoke a sort of modern-day Gregorian chant: gorgeously melancholic vocals backed by expansive electronic landscapes, all speckled with bursts of noise and masked in reverb. But listen to the freshly reworked version of “Avalanche (Slow),” a track from her 2011 LP Conatus, and you’ll hear the higher end of her spinto soprano cleanly shine through. The updated song lingers with newfound emotion, backed by a dulcet string quartet as opposed to the dark synth beds of yesteryear, and as such, sets the tone for the back catalog-plundering Versions.

Danilova cites a performance she gave at the Guggenheim as the inspiration for this album, a collaboration with iconic experimental-industrial composer JG Thirlwell and the Mivos Quartet string ensemble. It’s meant to show vulnerability, peeling back the densely layered cloaks of the DIY bedroom-electronic production on some of her strongest work. More importantly, however, it grants a previously unimagined range and depth to her voice; whereas Zola Jesus’ stage shows and most gut-grabbing love songs hit hardest when she’s wailing into the ether, Versions achieves the same impact with a far subtler tone. For the revamped “Seekir” (another Conatus standout), the original’s drum machines are replaced by dramatically interwoven violins and the low, urgent moans of a cello; where she once howled cathartically, Danilova now gently pleads from within the swirl of strings.

There’s also an emotional shift here, too, to a more tender approach: Songs initially borne from “passionate hysterics” (as she recently put it) are now recast as thoughtful recollections on the fading scars of past wounds. “Sea Talk” might be the best example: The 2010 version used marching, industrial hi-hats and guttural reverb to set a tone of sleepless contemplation, but here the song is all but cheerful, a chipper string melody carrying Danilova through what seems to be a resilient, almost glowing walk down mMemory lLane. This sort of alternate-universe intimacy with songs we’ve already come to love makes Versions a wild success, proving that something wemusic once coveted for its desolate nature can be just as warm and familiar when flipped into something else entirely.