Anathema have been on a tear in recent years, garnering critical adoration for 2010’s We’re Here Because We’re Here and seeing 2012’s Weather Systems top many pundits’ year end lists. Distant Satellites, 2014’s follow-up, showed the band stretching out a bit more, incorporating a wider sonic palette in their work, and it paid off with yet another top-notch release. The Optimist is the band’s latest, and promises to be a darker offering than recent output.
Darker is a relative term with Anathema, though, as at times this decade their music has almost been saccharine enough to be theme music for the Hallmark greeting card company. Lush arrangements and impeccable songwriting have saved us from getting diabetes in the past, and Distant Satellites cut down on this style considerably in the album’s second half, leading one to expect an album similar to that half here with The Optimist. And that’s kind of what we get.
The Optimist is a conceptual album, rather than a concept album. The band took the cover of 2001’s A Fine Day to Exit and used that (and the album’s character) as the basis for this album. What is the character’s fate? Where did he go? These questions aren’t exactly answered on The Optimist, but that’s where the narrative takes us, allowing us to answer on our own.
Musically, The Optimist picks up where Distant Satellites left off, with electronic drum loops introducing us to the album proper after a brief cinematic introduction. “Leaving it Behind” is the first real song, and as we’ve gotten used to from previous album openers it is full of energy and power. “Tonight let go, let go of everything,” Vincent Cavanagh sings, laying the foundation for the rest of the record.
Also as we’ve come to expect, the second song “Endless Ways” opens with pensive piano and Lee Douglas’s airy, reverb-drenched vocals, but this time the song quickly moves beyond syrupy ballad, with yet another drum loop quickly fading in, accompanied by clean-picked guitar and a deep square wave synth patch. It’s again a darker song with plenty of depth and layers to explore over multiple listens.
That’s the key to The Optimist. Anathema haven’t crafted an album of instantly recognizable anthems. There’s no “Untouchable” or “Thin Air” here. This collection of songs takes a few listens to get into, but patience is rewarded with a superbly crafted musical experience. There’s still plenty of Anathema’s trademark piano and string work, and Cavanagh and Douglas bring earnestness to their vocal performances, but the songs take time to sink in, which in some ways makes the experience more rewarding in the long term.
Overall, the sonics of The Optimist are not as pristine as past albums. Tony Doogan produces the album, rather than Christer-André Cederberg (producer of the past two), and the sound is more organic. Anathema recorded this album as a band, rather than laying down instruments one track at a time, and while the production isn’t as crystal clear as we are used to, it helps convey a sense of urgency to the music that is more than welcome after the last few releases, almost as if Anathema are embracing an aspect of their doom-tinged roots.
Aside from the awkwardly out of place ditty “Can’t Let Go,” there’s not much to dislike on The Optimist. Once one comes to terms with the murkier production and darker themes, they actually become positive attributes here. There’s a certain underlying menace to many of these tracks – “Springfield,” for example, bubbles with it just below the surface, while “Wildfires” has an almost apocalyptical feel to it. It’s a challenging record, and one of the most rewarding ones so far this year.
(released June 9, 2017 on Kscope Records)