Versions, the fourth Zola Jesus LP in as many years, might best be described as a set of self-covers; with one exception, these are new takes on existing tracks. Originating in a performance at the Guggenheim Museum at the end of the world tour supporting her last record, Conatus (2011), Zola Jesus, née Nika Roza Danilova, worked with no-wave legend J.G. “Foetus” Thirlwell to create new arrangements for her songs, with the Mivos Quartet performing them.
Like previous entries in the Zola Jesus discography, Versions is very deliberately an album, a beautiful, elegant, and carefully-crafted work. The coherence of each individual release lends her work a sense of determined exploration: each record builds on but diverges from its predecessor, less a “reinvention” than a bold and determined next step in a single exploratory trajectory. Nika Danilova doesn’t reinvent the wheel each time so much as she spins it in a new direction, building on and mutating what came before; regardless of the sonic details, Zola Jesus is always first and foremost about Danilova’s unique voice and vision.
Versions sounds both familiar and new, both surprising and self-evident; the songs here aren’t rebuilt from scratch so much as refined, clarified, crystallized. None of them are completely alien to anyone familiar with their original versions, and there are points where this feels like a missed opportunity. What could “Sea Talk” have become without the stuttering snare drum hook that is loyally reproduced from the original track? Likewise, the new version of “Night” starts as a funereal drone, foregoing the propulsive drums of the original, until percussion kicks in mid-way through that sounds like a watered-down version of the original rhythm track.
But these are quibbles, and the point of Versions isn’t really a radical reinvention so much as a sustained reconsideration: the album doesn’t so much make the songs unfamiliar as strip them down, rip them open and expose their guts. Zola Jesus’ music has always been less about radicality than about bare, brutal honesty, and here Versions doesn’t disappoint. These tracks aren’t remixes, they’re x-rays: at their best, they show not what the original songs might have been but what the original songs actually already were, even if we couldn’t see it. “Hikikomori,” one of the best tracks on Conatus, reappears here as a lean skeleton of itself, almost identical in its arrangement but without the richly textured, reverb-drenched synths of the album version. The result is haunting and powerful, and “Run Me Out” from Stridulum (2010) stripped back to equally visceral effect.
If “Hikikomori” and “Run Me Out” go furthest in showing what existing Zola Jesus tracks already are, there’s also a breathtaking suggestion of what future Zola Jesus albums might be in Versions’ only piece of new music: “Fall Back.” Beginning with tremulous high-pitched strings, the song slowly builds into a gloriously impassioned swirl of multi-tracked vocals and tight, sensual drums. “Fall Back” sounds like an orchestral arrangement of one of the best dance tracks you’ve never heard, and it confirms what Zola Jesus fans have long sensed– that beneath the industrial trappings, below the layers of synth pads and reverb-drenched percussion, lies a firm grasp of pop melody, and a bold, restless songwriting talent that is only beginning to hit its stride. “Fall Back” is also the album’s strongest showcase for the distinctive Zola Jesus howl, impassioned and instantly recognizable.
The CD version of Versions is bookended by two slightly different takes of “Avalanche” from Conatus; the first is slow and elegiac, the second looser, slightly faster. On the closing version, Danilova at one point allows herself a soulful “Yeah-eah,” a gospel-like flourish that might actually be a first in the Zola Jesus discography. This alternate version of “Avalanche” acts as a microcosm for Versions— it manages to feel both like a new development and like a mark of closure. Only time will tell whether Versions is the end of the first chapter of the Zola Jesus discography or the beginning of the second, but it’s a worthwhile and fascinating effort in either case.