Zola Jesus is back. Nika has stepped forward once again to remind us of her own vision. Taiga was mixed in Los Angeles with co-producer Dean Hurley who has worked with David Lynch, but the songs were written in the wilderness. Zola Jesus has called them accessible, and in comparison to older songs like Vessel, or Skin, the album does contain those easily recalled moments of fervent energy that are the hallmark of more pop-driven songs.
But if Taiga means the snowforest, and is the largest type of biome on the planet, then this album is maybe looking to merge that vast imagery with the feeling that music is all out there to be explored. Apparently Zola Jesus wanted to have her voice be purer, unadorned, and it stands out against the pure electronica. Taiga offers an enormous sound stage for her voice, and if the idea was to somehow replicate the sense of her singing in a massive empty forest, then they have succeeded. There are odd occasional stark contrasts between Zola’s singing, which veers from pop to dance to close up intimacy, and the florid intensity of the electronic forest that surrounds her. But there is no denying the way the album showcases her voice, makes it the focus in spite of the rest. And there is such an attempt at big sound, big space, big emotion here.
Taiga is the first song. The clear echoing voice, then the deep bass adding mystery. The lyric – “Do you wish you could go back to it all” – an urban perspective on nature. A vaguely horseback rhythm coming up from the bottom with a mix of rhythms, drums, then a brass like sound takes over as everything else goes silent. As an introduction, it contains elements of history, deep production, and wintry atmosphere. The voice here is passionate, throbbing with intensity. So much promise.
Dangerous Days, and suddenly we’ve left the live forest for the wood on the dance floor. There’s the same deep bass, but the effect is to feel surrounded by speakers, rather than trees. The electronic sound moves to the fast, higher taps that energize it. The vocal is more poppy here. The chorus is anthemic and very well produced, the extreme opposite of low-fi.
Hunger starts out with brass, then introduces the voice. This song was made for remixes. While the vocal struggles sometimes to match the vast sound that’s been built around it, the intimacy gives a feeling of sharing personal thoughts, and the chorus of lyrics does lay something bare -“I’ve got the hunger, I got the hunger in my veins, I will surrender, til it takes me away”. That sets up and dissolves into an EDM section that calls out for flashing lights and dark rooms.
Go (Blank Sea) has a chorus that works best, with a hint of Elizabeth Fraser, which is oddly pleasing. The verse asks “Who can give me what I’m after in this cold saturation?” and is more straightforward compared to the rest of the song. You might wish she’d lose it a bit more, not be in control, and go with the enormous production, as in the chorus.
Lawless and its chorus get to the heart of it. Big, blown out, Zola’s voice is made to echo over and reach out to and match the saturated sound at the peaks. It’s vast, it’s huge, the whole song should be the chorus.
Long Way Down shows a better balance between the electronic wonderfulness which has been pushed to the edges here, and her voice, which straddles that line between pop and handholding closeness.
Why then wish for, just a little, the epic over the top quality of the first songs? Is it that this song is epic lite? Maybe just that if the beginning of the album was a vast boreal forest, this is more of a garden.
Hollow is capital letters. Brass. Drums. Echoes. This really gets the tug of war between sound and voice right. It has just enough pop, just enough storm cloud atmosphere, just enough of everything.
If this is pop, then we can only hope that this starts playing in stores everywhere instead of Taylor Swift.
Does every song achieve whatever it might be trying for? Not necessarily, but they all have moments where the possible is crystal clear. The album is a gorgeous experiment, and if Taiga accomplishes a breakthrough into the pop realms and throws its fairly weighty influence around, you can say it all started here.