2001’s A Fine Day to Exit was an important album for Anathema, as it marked a transition between the gloomier edge of its late ‘90s catalog (which, oddly enough, was somewhat recaptured on 2004’s A Natural Disaster, alongside a strong electronica influence) and the much brighter and more symphonic modern palette that began fully on 2010’s comeback of sorts, We’re Here Because We’re Here. (It also ended with what is arguably still their most beautiful and poetic creation, “Temporary Peace“, especially the closing lyric/melody combination.)
It’s only somewhat surprising, then, that the sextet’s latest studio record, The Optimist, is a spiritual successor to it regarding both sound and story. It’s an exquisite mash-up between the upfront rock foundation of A Fine Day to Exist, the heavenly orchestral atmospheres of their last three full-lengths, and some unexpected new routes that make it both familiar and fresh. That said, it also contains some monotonous moments and slightly underwhelming tracks that keep it from feeling as thematically rich, sonically ambitious, and emotionally essential as its immediate predecessors. It may be their weakest record this decade, but that’s only because of how remarkable the prior trio are. The Optimist is nevertheless a wonderful record that continues the band’s one-of-a-kind excellence.
According to founder Daniel Cavanagh, the sequence was inspired by the cover of A Fine Day to Exit. Also, the character of The Optimist is “a surrogate” for auto-biographical subtexts, allowing them to “put sound, feelings… [and their] own hopes and fears into another person”. Co-lead vocalist Vincent Cavanagh adds that “the guy who disappeared [on the cover of A Fine Day to Exist] — you never knew what happened to him. Did he start a new life? Did he succumb to his fate? It was never explained.” As expected from these premises (and the group’s revered trademarks), The Optimist is an almost endlessly enigmatic, moving, and captivating journey that once again elicits cheerful sensations, poignant realizations, and existential quandaries.
The LP connects to its forerunner immediately, as the title of opener “32.63N 117.14W” refers to “the exact coordinates for Silver Strand beach in San Diego — the last known location of the Optimist — shown on the cover of A Fine Day to Exit.” At roughly 77 seconds in length, it’s a quick sound collage that follows the Optimist (presumably) as he leaves the ocean and gets back into his car. From there, a few subtle nods to past works (like a female meteorologist saying, “Weather systems” and a section from “Hindsight”) appear in the midst of radio static. Not only does this establish clever links to the rest of the discography, but it possibly implies that the Optimist is a fan of Anathema, too (in the same way that the Who used early performance clips for meta character development in Quadrophenia). An EDM beat closes it and leads into the first proper song, “Leaving It Behind”.
A catchy rocker packed with distorted guitar riffs, intense rhythms, and electronic frenzy (evoking the latter half of 2014’s Distant Satellites), the track finds Vincent belting out defiant yet positive lyricism — “Cause I am leaving it behind / Stop feeling dead inside tonight” — as forcefully fragile as ever, once again demonstrating why he’s among the best singers in the genre today. It’s gripping and feisty enough, but it doesn’t pack the overwhelming emotion and luscious arrangements of past starters such as “The Lost Song Pt. I” or “Untouchable Pt. I” (hence the aforementioned return to a more straightforward basis).
Following the pattern of preceding releases, Lee Douglas takes the reigns on the next selection, “Endless Ways”, and sounds typically powerful and impassioned, offering expectant outlooks like “There’s no way of knowing / What could be waiting / There’s no way of knowing / The dream I’m creating.” Initially a piano ballad, it evolves into a whirlwind of aggressive but effective textures (including strings) to successfully complement her commanding veneers. “The Optimist” sticks to a similar trajectory, albeit with Vincent taking charge again and a greater emphasis on harmonies and dynamic vibrancy. Of course, Douglas backs him up throughout, and as usual, they’re an exceptionally poignant pair who, in conjunction with a central hypnotic riff and more serene orchestration, yield the most striking tune yet. In fact, it’s compositions like this that make Anathema so unique.
Interestingly, the instrumental “San Francisco” is led by a piano embellishment of a note progression from “Endless Ways” (causing The Optimist to act as a cohesive conceptual suite). Robust yet ultimately repetitive, its ensuing electronic syncopation and synth effects add sorrowful layers to the foundation but can’t prevent it from overstaying its welcome a tad. In other words, there’s not enough variety and momentum to warrant the length, so it’d work much better if it were either shorter or more multifaceted. Still, it’s a bold and striving inclusion that adds to the sophistication of the trip as a whole. Unfortunately, “Springfield” falls into a comparable boat of being effective until it becomes tiresome. Its chaotic grandeur is quite good, don’t get me wrong (especially alongside Douglas’ row of “How did I get here? / I don’t belong here”, which is perhaps a subtle reference to “Dusk” from Distant Satellites), but it could be either shorter or more assorted (even with its ominous and mysterious male whispers and callback to waves crashing).
Without a doubt, “Ghosts” is the highlight of The Optimist since both its verses and chorus rank alongside the most gorgeous melodies Anathema has ever composed. Douglas sounds angelic and heartbroken during her lamentations, and the surrounding piano chords, delicate percussion, and swirling strings comfort and enhance with devastating elegance. It’s a marvelous piece. Afterward, “Can’t Let Go” finds Vincent delivering ethereal ponderings (“If you are not there / I’m coming down this road again / If you I love / Then where are you?”) over a go-getting backdrop that evokes “Get Off Get Out” from We’re Here Because We’re Here. It’s more nuanced and peaceful than that one, though, with evocative vocal chants covering the instrumentation as it builds.
“Close Your Eyes” is haunting in its sparseness, with Douglas issuing proclamations such as “Sleep tonight / And dream on / Just dream on / For the dark roads / For the dark roads / For you and I” over scant piano chords. Near the end, it takes an unexpected turn by introducing horns as it transforms into a jazzy affair reminiscent of Porcupine Tree’s Stupid Dream. The penultimate “Wildfires” is downright ghostly, with Vincent’s quick, transgressive echoes coating electronic percussive loops as the composition becomes increasingly bombastic. Fascinatingly, his final outcries — “It’s too late” — are almost certainly a retort to the nearly parallel closing of “A Simple Mistake”.
Oceanic sounds decorate the early measures of the finale, which, true to its name, takes things “Back to the Start”. An uplifting acoustic ode, the song very much conveys a sense of catharsis and acceptance both lyrically and musically, with more warm textures and dense harmonies lulling you to beautiful calmness after so much morose uncertainty. Near the end, luminous strings pile on the already glorious movement, generating an inescapable ray of endearing confidence. It’s a wonderful final path. (Curiously, like “Temporary Peace”, there are several minutes of silence before an at-home acoustic add-on appears; in this case, a child screams demands as Daniel Cavanagh (I think) sings about them. It’s a touching and playful excerpt.)
The Optimist isn’t Anathema’s finest effort yet, but again, that’s more of a compliment to their other releases this decade than it is a knock against this one. Despite the album’s few tedious sections and a lack of overwhelmingly emotional and luscious moments (at least in comparison to the previous trio of LPs), the majority of the sequence falls in line with the band’s inimitable ability to capture universal sentiments like loss, love, and hope with pristine strength and grace. A large part of that is the continued superiority of Cavanagh and Douglas as a vocal duo, plus the group’s unwavering skill at plaintive lyricism and superb arrangements. It may not top what came right before it, but it still beats almost everything else that’s been released so far this year.