It’s all strings attached for Zola Jesus’ Versions.
The old adage of ‘if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it’ doesn’t apply for Zola Jesus, who has made a name for herself via doomy synths and grandiose bombast.
The Russian-American singer, born Nika Roza Danilova, collaborated with composer JG Thirlwell and the Mivos Quartet string ensemble at New York modern art museum Guggenheim and this album is basically that collaboration on record.
Replacing the gothic horror-laden landscapes with strings not only offers a refreshing and unique perspective to the tracks but it also emphasises just how incredible her voice is. She is, after all, a classically trained Soprano and whilst her voice explodes full throttle on her previous work, Versions sees Danilova put on display her more delicate and often fragile side.
As Danilova explained: “Versions is about the bone of the music; taking approximations from past records and turning them inside out. With all framework exposed, the songs are given a new medium in which to evolve and bloom into their own tiny worlds.”
Usually when artists and bands offer alternative versions they’re either simply stripped to the bone, offering an insight into the nuts and bolts of the arrangements, or they’re lazily electronically plastered. However, this is a full on reworking, with Thirlwell enriching them with beauty, delicacy and emotion.
‘Avalanche (Slow)’, the first track on the album, sets the benchmark exceedingly high, and within the first ten seconds you can tell the direction of things to come. The strings are capable of making you swell with overwhelming emotion, whilst Danilova’s fragile voice dominates the piece.
Now, to say that Stridulum and Conatus were lacking in emotion would be obviously nonsensical but Danilova somehow seems to change the outlook of many of the songs. Where there was once despair there is now hope, and the fact that her songs are capable of showing such contrast is testament to her ability as a songwriter and vocalist and the finesse of Thirlwell and the string quartet.
Favourites ‘Run Me Out’, ‘Sea Talk’ and ‘Night’ still contain the basis of what made them some of her most popular tracks, and that is the infectiously catchy hooks, though with added expanse they sound remarkably fresh, whilst the fact she’s recorded a new song, ‘Fall Back’, in this modern classical style hints that maybe Danilova will implement it into her future work.
Far from being a mere stop-gap in her career, Versions is essential listening for fans of Zola Jesus, offering a genuinely fascinating glimpse into her previous work.