Here’s my obligatory statement of conflict of interest: I am a huge Anathema fan, and seeing them is definitely on my lifetime bucket list. They have been an important part of my life ever since I first heard them back in 2007, and they continue to be important for me now. However, this level of fandom is a two-edged sword, because my expectations are pretty high for every new release. Distant Satellites, in my opinion, was a step in a really promising direction, and so if my favorite prog rock family let me down at this point I’d be doubly disappointed.
But I’m going to dispatch with all that talk now. I think this is a jaw-droppingly fantastic album that hooked me on the very first listen. I am very happy right now.
Instead of making a track-by-track “dancing about architecture” wankfest, I think the important thing for me to do is express the emotional and compositional directions that I feel the band is taking and how this was prefigured by Distant Satellites and previous albums. I felt like Satellites set a new direction that was intentionally distinct from Weather Systems, Falling Deeper, or We’re Here Before We’re Here, all three of which were heavily reliant on almost conventional, almost radio-friendly moving piano ballads and Lee Douglas’s singing. With those three albums, I definitely loved the highest points, but I still wondered how long that model could take them. Emotionally, there was a lot of what I’d call “soaring melancholy.” Distant Satellites, by contrast, moved more to a heavier, thematic, cyclical model with lots of reprisals of the main theme in different permutations throughout the album. The result was a more cohesive, progressive album that needed to be listened in its entirety, in order, to be fully appreciated.
Thus, I was expecting a move into something even more concept-oriented territory with The Optimist. I wasn’t disappointed on that front, though the concept expressed itself differently than my expectations. In the promotional release with the album, the band explains that The Optimist is a conceptual sequel of the protagonist at the end of 2001’s A Fine Day to Exit. It starts off with radio noise and the latitude and longitude coordinates of the protagonist’s “exit,” and then follows him/her from there. The lyrics of the album are a puzzle that I confess I haven’t solved in my own mind, and probably won’t for quite some time (I like to let concept albums like this unfold in my brain over months or even years, so don’t rush me). The band also explained that the narrative directions of The Optimist are a kind of amalgam of the hopes, fears, and uncertainties of the primary songwriters involved. I’m feeling a thematic and narrative wholeness that I haven’t heard since Marillion’s Brave, which shares some obvious surface-level similarities with The Optimist, though I’m not sure how far the similarities go just yet.
Musically, The Optimist is definitely more single-oriented than Distant Satellites, but to my pleasant surprise there is no sacrifice in cohesiveness in doing so. Even more, their songwriting displays a much more dynamic and full emotional range than any album of theirs I’ve encountered. They still have some nice emotional ballads, featuring Douglas’s lovely and unique voice, but there’s also an energy here that I haven’t quite encountered in Anathema before. There are certainly heart-pounding, heavy, fast sections of Anathema past, but to me they represented cathartic release (“Thin Air,” “Untouchable”), nihilistic acceptance (“One Last Goodbye”), or even violence and revenge (“Empty”), never an emotional energy that says, “Actually, I think things might go well.” I never thought I’d write that in an Anathema review. Even though the band promises that The Optimist offers some of Anathema’s “darkest, most challenging and unexpected music” they’ve done, I’m still struck by the contrast that the album displays. I can’t help but feel the optimism.
There’s a difference between an album that has both happy and sad moments, and an album that recognizes the human reality of an emotional ambiguity that contains both. The Optimist displays the latter, and I think it shows a real emotional growth and maturity past the albums of Anathema’s past. If there’s one primary criticism of Anathema that I think has real merit, it’s that their music had a sort of rigid, single-minded, even adolescent expression of a narrow range of feelings. That has improved a bit since the mid-’00s, but overall it still seemed like angry melancholy was just replaced with calm melancholy. Now, I feel like Anathema has finally discovered a full palette of colors that they didn’t have before. It reminds me of those viral videos of colorblind folks who put on Enchroma glasses and see a full spectrum of colors for the first time. Maybe this is a trivial point because the band straight-up called this album The Optimist, but I think it’s still worth noting.
Also, a note about the production and arrangements. I feel that the guys are getting more adept at intricate sequencing – Distant Satellites relied pretty heavily on sequenced percussion but at times I felt that it was the kind of drum sequencing that I’d come up with just dinking around with drum software at 1:00 AM. The percussion on The Optimist seems like it is a perfectly seamless part the composition, never drawing too much attention to itself and getting out of the way when it needs to.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this album is still written in the Anathemese language. There are still soaring crescendoes, ballads, bombastic and percussion heavy sections followed by quiet whispering sections, there are still Lee Douglas and Cavanagh vocals, there are still powerful melancholic emotions. So I want to emphasize that, despite this album being a significant step for the band, it’s not a reboot. In think this is the best-case scenario for a band with such loyal fans.
Guys, The Optimist is an absolute win. Making an album like this requires a level of tightrope-balancing that can crush lesser musicians, but they managed to get all of them basically right. They created an album that:
- Moves their sound in a bold, progressive direction without “rebooting;’
- Displays conceptual AND musical cohesiveness;
- Displays both a dynamic emotional range AND a growth in emotional maturity beyond previous albums;
- Has a concept that will take multiple listens to explore AND has music that is interesting enough to get the listener through all the spins necessary to get there.
This super-fan is very pleased with this album, and I think you will be, too.