Lawrence English’s latest record, Cruel Optimism, takes its title from a recent philosophical work by American theorist Lauren Berlant. In it, she analyzes the societal desires that the populace shares (such as upward mobility), as well as how the society itself (through economical or social stratification) can no longer provide such opportunities and outlets for its people. Jumping off this, English says that this record analyzes power “both present and absent. . . . [it] shapes two subsequent human conditions: obsession and fragility”. In this way, Cruel Optimism is a protest record in both form and function, yet the ways in which it asserts its protests are evocative rather than overt because it’s a highly experimental ambient piece.
Cruel Optimism’s cover is a harbinger for the sounds contained within; it depicts a confusing composition of clouds in shades of gray, with no pure black or pure white. The record itself is consistently tinged with a glaze of white noise. Each sound feels muted, if not also a little indistinct, and it leaves an impression rather than a clarification. Sure, there are even some moments in which you can suss out a specific instrument — be it a leaden horn, an organ, some strings, or clanging percussion — but it’s how English chooses to mask these in service of an overall aesthetic that communicates its enormity as it reckons with memories of the past and hopes for the future.
This narrative is very much associative and present. For instance, Cruel Optimism‘s opener, “Hard Rain”, pulses and throbs yet stays strangely in place. It never makes a forward movement, and it’s followed by “The Quietest Shore”, which, like its predecessor, is very evocative of its titular subject. Here, English’s work conjures imaginary spaces and landscapes like the best ambient music, but it’s imbued with a sense of authorial control and concision that allows for a greater sense of dynamics to break against the expectations of the genre.
Afterward, English beats the listener with “Hammering A Screw”, whose presence recalls a litany of church organs being played simultaneously. Interestingly, these liturgical timbres repeat throughout the record, such as with the Wagnerian tones on “Exquisite Human Microphone” and “Somnambulist”. This music is indeed very serious, elucidating human struggle as noble, shared, and deeply felt. It’s fitting, then, that “Moribund Territories” dutifully closes the sequence by evoking struggle, resolve, and reward. It’s as motionless as “Hard Rain”, but the element here is not necessarily water; rather, it’s the wind that fills our lungs. In fact, its instrumentation makes the air a synesthetic object that the listener can practically touch.
Like fellow electronic experimentalist Tim Hecker, Lawrence English makes music that is inherently sculptural. The aesthetic approach on Cruel Optimism moves the experiential quality away from being merely aural and physicalizes it through the tactility of the sounds. The LP is as body-oriented as dance music, yet its effect comes more from how the music envelops the listener as it surges and undulates like a great sea. In a way, it’s like the human experience being shot through a slab of gray, adroitly capturing the current cultural and political moments that we’re all sharing. As a result, it’s not only timely, but also timelessly painful, beautiful, and powerful.