“Blog hot” is a description—which, if it doesn’t exist already, consider this its invention—with one of the shortest half-lives in the English language. It’s a naturally unwieldy phrase with no clear standardization. No one can define just how many blogs it takes to ordain one as “hot,” nor is there any agreement about which ones are truly capable of breaking new bands. Former blog superstars like Salem, progenitors of the microgenre “witch house,” went from being the band that launched a thousand think pieces to punchline in less than two years. (Unironically naming an EP Yes I Smoke Crack probably didn’t help.)
Salem is actually a pretty good point of reference for Zola Jesus. Both specialize in a kind of goth-friendly electronica, and both were once the epitome of “blog hot.” Yet whereas Salem sounds like Bauhaus recorded underwater sniffing airplane glue, Jesus sounds like Siouxsie got sick of eating ramen and decided to become Fiona Apple for the Hot Topic set. Jesus’s new album, Versions, a collection of previous songs rearranged for quartet, is her most accessible to date and perhaps her best shot at the kind of wide audience that Florence and the Machine has enjoyed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s also her most milquetoast album so far.
The album’s songs are reworked in a style that willingly strips away any vestige of the fiery eccentricity which characterizes Jesus’s best work. Every song follows the same generic blueprint: weeping synths and strings over minimal or nonexistent Casio keyboard beats as Ms. Jesus coos prettily or wails out to the cheap seats. It’s all very tasteful and handsome, like a particularly well-crafted NPR tote bag. It’s “passionate” music, in so far as it strains mightily to announce its gloomy, deathly serious import on every track. Even the song names broadcast that this music means business: “Avalanche (Slow),” “Run Me Out,” “Night,” “Collapse,” “In Your Nature,” and “Frowny Emoticon Juice Box Genocide.”
Okay, I made up that last one, but you get the idea. This is sad music for people who haven’t experienced much sadness in their lives and need a little contact misery. It’s the perfect soundtrack to both nouveau-bohemian mating rituals and drinking yourself into a self-pitying stupor, the sound of a failed art-school major cornering you in a dive bar with trivial tales of romantic woe cast as Greek tragedy for 36 very long minutes. With Versions, Jesus achieves something her previous albums hadn’t: She’s created art so unobjectionable that it attains a kind of beige obscenity.