I know a few simple things: that I’ve been listening to The Optimist LP incessantly for about five weeks; that its musical facility and lyrical mysticism are breathtaking and lingering; that portions of it seem to have been written expressly for life as it is now, as if the thoughts and feelings they transmit were somehow promised in the stars, or cast down from the musical stratosphere.
But the time we’re living through right now is anything but simple. New York City, the notoriously tough place where I live, has been dramatically weakened and now suspiciously looks over its shoulder; my country, irrevocably altered, has been struck in both its heartland and its heart; much of the world may soon be engaged in a fractious, extended war. A poignant letter from my alma mater said it most gravely, most succinctly: “We are living through one of the most difficult periods in American history”.
Turin Brakes, a south-London duo whose first full-length release became available in the States during a time when life seemed much easier, have rendered an album that translates into this questionable moment with an eloquence and uncanny prescience. The Optimist LP is a lush vision of personal exploration, ridden with vignettes that both depict the everyday in all of its naked glory and bring the impossible within reach. What’s more, it’s an album filled to the brim with expectation and faith, while brutally aware of the things big and small that threaten to take those possibilities away.
From the very first note in the opening number, “Feeling Oblivion”, Turin Brakes encapsulate the ambiance that will develop over the course of the album: contemplation, solace, recollection, fear, hope. The track begins with an echoing piano note that, like the first drop of rainfall, seems tentative and mistaken until it’s followed by cascades of others. The texture becomes more rich with rhythmic, rolling triplets on acoustic guitar, then opens fully when Olly Knights and Gale Paridjanian begin to sing, their words building images of the children playing, pastimes in summer, those moments when you go searching for meaning—for yourself—within life’s routine. In the midst of so much normalcy, the narrator’s thoughts for a moment turn existential: “If things get real / promise to take me somewhere else / by the time fear takes me over / will we still be rolling and feeling oblivion?”
But any itching you might have to continue into oblivion is averted by Turin Brakes’ signature style of engrossing folklore tied to sweet, mindful melodies. One of the album’s most terrific tracks, “The Door”, is a winding legend about an individual coming to terms with escape, indecision, and implication. Its pointed, poetic observations—“panic at the quiet times”, or “On the inside it hurts less”—come to life in vernacular harmonies and soulful breaths, and are punctuated by guitar lines that seem to effortlessly grow out of a perfect sonic terrain. The same holds true for the touching “State of Things”, a mournful love song thick with resolute drums and resigned pain.
The tales they tell are bold, tender, and awkward; they are painfully real as well as make-believe; and indeed, they are both blushing and proud. From the fantasy of “Future Boy” to the rocking out of “Slack”, Turin Brakes have created a testament to singing and songwriting, and it’s impossible not to believe. The Optimist LP is a treasure chest of sparkly baubles and rare gems, and from top to bottom it is precious and priceless.
Here and now, music is the closest thing we’ve got to time travel. Song brings us the ability to return to past selves instantly, vividly; the distinct pulse of a movement, a genre or fad; and ultimately, the soundtrack of history itself. However these difficult days are told years from now, one thing is clear: my memory will be forever stitched with the beauty and wonder of this album. Because, though it may not be simple, this is certainly a time when we could all use a little optimism.