“Optimistic” is murky and propulsive and knotty, but it’s quite easily the closest that we get to a conventional rock song here. Being the only predominantly guitar-based song on Kid A, with only the fuzzed-out bass grunt of “The National Anthem” coming anywhere close to a reasonable claim on that distinction elsewhere, is enough to distinguish it. But “Optimistic” is still a far cry from such earlier anthems as “Just” or “Sulk” or even a deranged fit like “Electioneering”.
The rhythmic, cycling, Crazy Horse-like groove that “Optimistic” locks into isn’t the kind that elicits the cathartic, fists-in-the-air transcendence but rather pensive twitching and evasive ground-staring. Suppose rock and roll is, even (or perhaps especially) at it’s most anguished and enraged. In that case, an extroverted and communal art form, Radiohead do their best here to render it the soundtrack to that favored topic of theirs, isolation.
Then there are the words, which, in keeping with the song’s grudging accessibility, are surprisingly coherent in contrast to what Thom Yorke was dishing out at the time. A reference to “living on an animal farm” is particularly illustrative; where Yorke draws clear influence from George Orwell throughout the band’s discography, this reference is still atypically explicit. Likewise, even the most literal-minded of listeners is unlikely to miss the scornful sarcasm of “If you try the best you can / the best you can is good enough”, particularly when it comes draped in Yorke’s disaffected sneer. It is a statement that now feels, from a backward-glancing perspective on the latter half of 2000, like a harbinger for things soon to come: a stolen presidential election months later, a decade of widespread disapproval failing to halt an unpopular war, a media culture that, apparently more “democratic” than ever in its construction, continues to highlight the very worst of us. “Vultures circling the dead, picking up every last crumb.”
Sonically and thematically, “Optimistic” is a troubling oasis in the middle of a difficult record, a seeming lifeline that quickly reveals itself as an ill omen. Still, the greatest irony inherent in a song as ironically titled as “Optimistic” may be just how backhandedly optimistic it is, offering a brief, though hardly encouraging, a moment of clarity amid chaos. If there is truth to be found amidst the distorted cacophony that defines being alive and aware in the 21st century, here it is in a quick, potent dose, to be absorbed before we are deposited — here via the half-minute of chill-house patter that ushers the song out –back into a land of confusion. — Jer Fairall