Approaching the fourth anniversary of Zola Jesus’ Okovi, I wanted to reflect on and share what this album has meant to me. Released at a pivotal time of my life, Okovi has been a source of reassurance, a record I have kept in constant rotation and close to my heart since its 2017 release.
It’s first important to note that 2016 – 2017 was a year not only of political dissatisfaction but one of personal turmoil. I saw a partner pass away, which left me as the first member of my immediate family to grieve the loss of a significant other. Looking back on it now, I recognize I was possibly a bit selfish in my grief, searching for that mustard seed, but In time I discovered that this was a natural part of the process; there is no fixed method to grieve; we all go through it differently. Nevertheless, it was still a trying period of my life that I haven’t really spoken much about.
I remember losing a good bit of weight, sulking around all gaunt, a skeleton, barely eating. I grew angry at my partner for putting me in that situation and then angry with myself for being angry. I wished it had been I that died as I felt they were more deserving of life. It was a constant tug-of-war that left me dispirited and bitter. It’s not that death was a new concept to me, I had been to my fair share of funerals, but the relatives in question were never close. However, In addition to losing a partner, I’ve experienced my grandparents’ deaths in the four years since my grandmother in 2018 and my grandfather in 2020. I can’t say if I ever recovered from my partner’s death and thus feel that the experience has hardened my exterior. I recall willingly burning bridges, severing once tight friendships, and allow my family to become strangers, all the while I felt myself become a shell of my former self. Feeling then at the age of twenty-seven that this wasn’t how it was meant to be, while everyone around me carried on with their lives, establishing foundations for bright futures. I couldn’t find many to relate with. Sure, friends and family supported me in the best way they knew how, but the circumstances of the death put people off, and I could feel their apprehensive shoulders, their reluctant embraces.
This is where Okovi, released a bit later in the year, came to me. I was familiar with Zola Jesus’ work for a while up to that point, originally hearing Stridulum while in college. I kept up with her over the years; every time she released an album, mostly on Sacred Bones, I found myself intrigued by her pop-styled songwriting infused with electronics and noise. Being the same age also gave me the feeling that I was watching an unsung voice of my generation, someone who grew up in a relatively similar climate, both politically and socially. Finding out that she herself was a fan of harsh noise music made her all the more relatable. From Stridulum to her Mute debut, Taiga, I was always impressed by her musical direction, always expanding, growing in more powerful and diverse with each release.
2017 saw me reject music as a pleasurable experience. I couldn’t find any comfort, whether it be from old favorites or newer releases. Nothing spoke to me; nothing held the truth I needed to hear. Released in September of 2017, Okovi, while arriving rather late, still arrived at the right time. I remember going to a record shop, an odd moment as I had spent the rest of the year staying away from music, where I saw it displayed amongst the new releases. I had been so blinded by my vexation that I wasn’t aware she was putting out a new album; I missed the announcements, the videos, the cover art reveal. When I walked out of that shop, Okovi was the sole LP I took with me. I was on a trip that soured with each passing minute, so I couldn’t lay down this new record just yet. I simply downloaded it, placed my headphones on, and let Zola Jesus’ music speak.
A dark hotel room at a time where I had never felt so absolutely isolated, the repetitious quality of the opening track “Doma” with its lyric of “Please take me home” sounded like a call from some otherworldly presence; it was everything I had wanted but felt incapable of attaining. Where was home? I didn’t know how to begin answering that as the home I had created was devastated over the course of a few months. It’s here that I have to speak of Zola Jesus’ inspiration behind the recording of Okovi. Inspired by her isolation in the aftermath of a dark moment involving a friend, I know the two situations aren’t the same. Still, there were enough parallels to make the lyrics encompass my experience all the same.
It was apparent from the beginning that Okovi had a broader scope than her past releases. It was as though through this somber moment, Nika had allowed this dire experience to reach for such a resounding clarity. “Exhumed” and “Soak” mirrored the feeling of solitude and helplessness that I felt. The one thing that I found puzzling to comprehend was the more hopeful qualities of lines like “You should know I would never let you drown.” I felt that although a sorrowful moment, Zola had found the light, that she, as well as her friend, had survived their situation. This was still an egotistical projection of my attitude.
“Ash to Bone” was the first moment where forgiveness ever crossed my mind with such certainty. It was here riding on the strings and flowing from Nika’s voice that I realized there wasn’t anyone to condemn. I don’t know if that was her purpose, but it was my takeaway from this track, a reminder that we are all strangers passing through. Becoming a centralized trilogy of this record where the ruminations on grief felt the rawest,” Witness,” “Siphon,” and “Veka” worked similarly to recall the moments I spent questioning what could have been done, the answer to which is dependent on the particulars of each unique situation. Although in my case there wasn’t much I could have done to intervene, I did when I noticed something was awry, and it took a while for me to accept that It was the best I could do, regardless, the questions were still asked, and from time to time, I find myself repeating the same inquiries.
It was also here that I began to find hope for myself in Nika’s lyricism. I started to transfer the lyrics from the loved one I had lost to myself, as though she was no longer singing about her friend but to me and universally to a world stricken by grief in general. So now, when I hear her sing, “We’d rather lean over, hold your warm, warm hand,” I hear it as an anthem of persevering despite our grief, to not let it defeat us. Survivor’s guilt is a reality, and I personally have never heard it expressed so eloquently; while perhaps not intentional, it’s what I hear, and these three tracks still manage to bring a tear to my eye.
It’s in the final third of the album where the darkness begins to disperse. Until this point, I felt that I had never heard someone speak so directly about the sort of grief I was feeling. Starting with “Wiseblood,” Nika reaches for the heavens and firmly commands a hopeful voice. The chorus of “If it doesn’t make you wiser/doesn’t make you stronger/doesn’t make you live a little bit/what are you doing?” gave me the realization that I could continue, that this was another experience to learn from. With life comes death, but that with time, continuing to live, perhaps never as innocent or whole, was a possibility.
There is something so incredibly joyous about “Remains,” which is perhaps my favorite moment on Okovi. Every time Nika inquires, “What remains of us,” it poses the question of who we become in the aftermath of such an event. How have we changed, both for the better and the worse? It’s here toward the end of the album that I began to self-reflect on my behavior as a direct result of my grief. I began to question how I could return to my former self, if I could at all. Maybe this change is a permanent thing, and if so, how do we embrace it without letting it destroy ourselves. It’s here that the color choice of vinyl becomes so poignant, rust, the color of something decaying and fading, chipping off as its form endures, like the emotional wounds we individually bear.
The instrumental coda of “Half Life” doesn’t really give any lasting advice or clarify any questions. Instead, it’s a gorgeous moment that leaves me with all of the questions, affirmations, and pain I either brought with me or have taken from Okovi. Ending it here is an elegant reminder of how there is no one truth, that all we can hope to do is feel for one another, to be there when you can, to not ignore the signs, to seek help, but most importantly: love. The grieving process is easy to comprehend, but comprehension doesn’t make living through it more comfortable. I hear acceptance in such a heartfelt way while listening to Okovi; through grief, one learns to accept the finality of death but long for the celebration of life. Acceptance and forgiveness aren’t immediate, and the sharpness with which you’re reminded of the loss fluctuates daily; however never truly leaves you. The album has aged well; it holds a timeless urgency that brings something new to my perception with each passing year. I’m excited by the prospect of hearing it ten years from now to see if my perspective has changed or if I can find new truths throughout.
I’ve supported Zola Jesus’ music on Patreon since 2017; I felt like it was the least I could do to mirror the support I found while listening to Okovi. Ever a promoter of supporting independent artists directly, she is no doubt an influence behind Lagniappe Exposure. In addition, Nika often writes about the cooperative relationship between artists and fans and the importance of an honest community. This has served as its own influence on rebuilding connections and becoming a stronger person in all aspects of life. This reflection serves as a thank you to Okovi and her. Following her work on Patreon gives fans a glimpse into her recording process. While she’s close to finishing up a new album, gestating since 2018, I have her past work but most personally valuable Okovi, not only my favorite album of 2017 but of the last decade, to revisit. I sincerely look forward to the direction she takes next, but I’m sure it will be a statement both complete and authentic.