For several reasons, it seems that the 2001 album A Fine Day To Exit has always been the least considered record in Anathema’s career. Sure, coming after a masterpiece such as Judgement (which received a complicated welcome itself) wasn’t easy and, in general, there still was some distrust regarding the many rock moments that other big bands of that era (Paradise Lost, Tiamat, My Dying Bride, etc.) were having. Moreover, it was probably less personal and more radioheadesque than their other works of that period. Nevertheless, there was a big difference between Anathema and most other bands with similar backgrounds: for the Liverpool-based combo it was never an accident or something unusual, but more of an extremely aware search for something different (it was a fine day to exit and discover the world behind the veil, after all), started years before and then continued with great awareness and dedication.
After sixteen years — over which Anathema have done pretty much anything — we heard the album finishing with the (spectacular) “Temporary Peace” would have worked as a prequel of sorts to the new release The Optimist. Let’s start by saying that entitling an album The Optimist was in itself a very brave move, especially in an era — and particularly in the United Kingdom — apparently made of verbal and physical violence, online fights and so on, even by launching a social media campaign with the hashtag #whoistheoptimist, before finally releasing the album through the reliable Kscope. While speaking about the record, Anathema were referring to it as their darkest material to date; needless to say I was waiting for it with great interest and some concern about the direction they would have taken this time around.
So we get to the opening reference: The Optimist fittingly opens with the sounds from a car radio (the one seen on the cover of A Fine Day To Exit), as the vehicle faces the Pacific Ocean from the San Diego Bay (“32.63N 117.14W” are the coordinates of Silver Strand State Beach). The main character from the previous album, seemingly about to kill himself, gets back to the car and turns on the radio (as also shown in the video of “Can’t Let Go”). Here we already have a first wink to fans: among the things he hears, apart from a reference to the Bay’s weather system, we can even hear an excerpt from “Dreaming Light” (off We’re Here Because We’re Here) played backwards and sped up. As we know, that song fully represents the acquisition of a new awareness in Anathema’s music. This kicks off the album proper.
“Leaving It Behind”, apart from being a clear declaration of intent directed at A Fine Day To Exit, puts together the electronic patterns heard in Distant Satellites with the rock vein of the guitars. Thus, the main character stops feeling dead inside (sic) and puts everything behind, leaving on a new journey. This fast-paced ride sung by Vincent soon stops in order to leave room to Lee’s voice, accompanied by the gentle notes played on a piano in “Endless Ways”, before opening up on one of the band’s signature crescendos in the second half of the song.
I will not proceed with a song-by-song analysis, but I’ll highlight some of the main aspects: musically speaking, The Optimist has a somewhat more orchestral breath in which wide room is left to keyboards and Lee Douglas’ voice. In this sense, there were no major shakeups compared to what Anathema have done over the past decade or so, but lots of work was done on the creation of a consistent musical and conceptual world, abundant in internal and external references (“Wildfires” could very well be one of their songs from the late ’90s in terms of atmosphere).
Coherently with what we heard on Distant Satellites, this release also saw a growth in the room given to electronic sounds — particularly evident in the instrumental “San Francisco” — accompanying the main character on his road to “Springfield” (chosen as the single) without really knowing why. There is much less text than usual, and most of the narration is done through images (in the booklet) and sounds, or even simple repetitions of sentences in the songs. The story mainly takes place within him and, consequently, the listener; apparently, the narrator is struggling to let the past go and fighting to get back on his feet again.
This is when The Optimist takes those darker tones the Cavanagh brothers talked about when introducing the album before its release (there is even some jazz in “Close Your Eyes”): there doesn’t seem to be any room for an actual happy ending, while the narrator doesn’t appear to be able to get back with the person he loves and goes “Back To The Start”. The last track opens on him playing and singing «they don’t understand» on the seaside, before leaving the stage to Vincent’s voice and the other instruments on the way to an unusual gospel-like crescendo; the contrast between music and lyrics is here a crucial key to interpret this ambiguous ending. At the end of the song, the narrator knocks on the door and the journey ends with a «how are you?»; after some minutes of silence, the optimists will be rewarded with a little ghost track.
How to evaluate The Optimist? Just like most of the music released by the Liverpudlians over the last decade, this album will need several listens in order to be fully appreciated in its many facets. Once again, we are confronted with some kind of an emotional epic in which humans acquire a sort of universal centrality, as what simply appears like a man driving on the road to rebuild becomes the medium of our hope in the dark. Who is the optimist?