I really like Zola Jesus. I want to really like Zola Jesus. In the past, I’ve felt about her records the way Rose McGowan seems to feel in The Doom Generation when she stares into the cover of Blood by This Mortal Coil, saying, “I wish I could crawl in here and disappear forever.” Zola Jesus’ records feel like a digest from a barren, rough and synth-scored world I’d rather live in, continuing a massive tradition in goth-pop of creating something dark and brooding but accessible, making something beautiful out of ugly things.
Taiga is a digest from a much less barren place, even in name; “taiga” is a type of dense forest, and the name is not unfitting, in that this record is, sonically, larger and, at once, more jam-packed than anything Zola Jesus has done before. This is all to say, it sounds like a pop record. None of this is to say that the record sounds disingenuous, however; if anything, her previous records seemed to be posturing on genre and mood—aiming for something, rather than being purely intuitive. Taiga might her most honest record yet, and it’s hard to say and to admit that, in its honesty and forthrightness, it is also her worst.
The most dramatic, most obvious, change from previous Zola Jesus records is that the vocals are front and center, big, gleaming, slick. And one thing that made her music so charming was how little of it sounded so polished. But, more problematic, the melodies are never good enough to be the focus; textures fall to the background, seem to no longer be a part of the point of the music, even though there are blips of incredible drum machine freak-outs that fade up and then away just as quickly, or beautiful synth sounds that simply become background after 15 seconds in.
The point of Taiga seems to be the hooks, and a couple of them stand out as catchy: “Dangerous Days,” the first single, and “Go (Blank Sea),” where the chorus goes, over and over, “I go downtown/ where they don’t know my name.” Lyrics have never been a strong suit for Zola Jesus, but I can’t suss out any meaning or mood from these; there are numerous references to keeping your name safe, parallels from neighboring tracks “Ego” and “Lawless” about being “tethered” and wanting to “sever the ties,” but it all rings empty.
This record seems to be an attempt to step out from behind a veil, to be courageous, damn the consequences, and there’s a lot that I admire in the intention. Sometimes, though, we get so caught up in the meaning of our actions that we forget what action it is we’re taking at all. Taiga is an attempt at putting what it is that’s personal—vocals and lyrics—in the forefront, which is important, but it’s banished a mood and kind of mystery from everything. No longer is this music something I can crawl inside of and disappear forever—it’s something that feels real, like it came from this world. It is taking something ugly and making something still ugly out of it; it isn’t catchy enough to earn new fans, nor foggy and gothy and weird enough to keep the old. It is a failure, I think, but not one that is beyond understanding; it loses so much of what the project seemed to be about, and while it is a courageous step, it is walking blindly in the wrong direction.