I have always been a fan of Anathema, but I haven’t always been a very good fan of Anathema. I was there at the beginning and count The Silent Enigma as required listening for early death doom worship, and I was unsurprised and pleased with the about-face into gloomy atmospheric rock signaled by 1998’s Alternative 4, but apart from the masterpiece that is Judgement – an album responsible for producing one of the most heart-breaking songs I’ve ever heard in “One Last Goodbye” – I’ve often considered myself more of a devotee of Anathema songs than a devotee of Anathema albums. I have since come around on the full scope of a couple of their more recent releases, but it’s been a while since I’ve been directly leveled by an album from start to finish. Now, with The Optimist, album number thirteen, a most impressive punch to the chiclets has been delivered that has brought a rather dramatic conclusion to my “contingent” fandom for the band.
Anathema is no stranger to greatness, but this work represents the most compelling coalescence of the elements that have lead to their most prominent peaks into a one-hour collective that they’ve done in years, and that makes attempts by yours truly to figure out a relatively succinct manner for putting all the goodness into words particularly challenging, so prepare to witness brevity getting bent over the railing.
From an overall design perspective, The Optimist is near bulletproof. The prevailing theme is a direct continuation of 2001’s A Fine Day to Exit and that record’s storyline detailing the experiences of an individual running away from a life in order to start anew. With The Optimist, the protagonist kicks things off on the very same beach in San Diego (32.63N 117.14) where A Fine Day left off, then travels north and finally east until landing on the doorstep where things likely began and quietly asking “how are you” to the person who eventually answers a tentative knock. But, as is often the case with Anathema, the lyrics are regularly sparse and universal enough to resonate with any listener’s experiences, so it becomes a concept album that appeals to damn-near everyone’s occasional (or frequent) propensity for flight.
Further expanding Lee Douglas’ role as a principal vocalist is an equally smart design move, mainly because she sounds incredible here, whether on her own or accompanying Vincent Cavanagh’s familiar timbre, but also by virtue of ensuring the overall narrative doesn’t end up pinned strictly to a male portrayal. For the most part, The Optimist finds the pair alternating the spotlight from song to song, and a particular highlight hits with “Close Your Eyes,” a number that comes across like 50 Words for Snow-era Kate Bush with an extra dash of smoky noir. It’s a beautiful tune that’s altogether different, even by Anathema standards, and it [absolutely] further cements Douglas as a powerhouse.
The champ design decision, however, deals with the manner in which Anathema have perfected the art of being deceptively simple, and how they’ve chosen to present these goods. They’re no stranger to the direct method, but thanks to the sheer hook, this record realizes a new pinnacle. In most every case, a song will take a key concept via a fairly straightforward (piano or guitar) riff or beat and drive it right through to the end with little deviation, exquisitely assimilating the other players and elements such as string orchestration that end up following the hook into shifting crescendos and cascades that are bristling with passion. Consequently, each song becomes a postcard depicting a specific mood, and the whole album develops into a single portfolio that’s governed by that proverbial “Anathema vibe” and a relatively unexpected recurrence of electronic fixings – programmed beats, John Carpenter-like synths, and other such keyboard wizardry. The postcards become mightily persuasive, and the inclination to take them all in during each visit is quite strong.
The record is damn-near impervious from a musicianship angle as well. It would be difficult not to be, really, considering how long these guys have been at it, but there’s something to be said about not only having a sense of familiarity – working with some members for the better part of 25 years – but also a literal familial connection with all three Cavanaghs together again, plus the brother/sister Douglas bond. The way each member connects under the given blueprint is intuitive and smooth as silk, and the album’s brawny production gives each player ample opportunity to flex. The quiet moments are as elegant and impeccable as they’ve ever been, and the freedom to truly be LOUD again has a particularly impressive confidence. Jamie Cavanagh’s bass-play is big and bullish, and “Leaving it Behind,” “Springfield” and “Wildfires” all flash moments of noisiness and heft that haven’t been matched from this Liverpoolian junta since the early years.
Finally, The Optimist is a bulldozer from an emotional perspective. The sweeping “wanderer’s motif” is something that resonates with most, and the manner in which the songs draw the listener in with an easy grab and then seamlessly progress from one snapshot to the next makes the record exceptionally fitting for any evacuee’s endeavor that might plant them smack-dab in the middle of a big open sky with nothing but endless miles of possibilities in every direction. The title track is so goddamn warm and comforting once Douglas’ voice joins in that you’ll want to wrap the notes around you and watch the clouds trundle until eventually being lifted by the guitars for its soaring conclusion. Further, “Ghosts” is slow, maudlin and reflective with zero hint of blubbery bullshit or needless Coldplay-isms, and instead offers up every sentiment of heartfelt penance. By the time the heart-swelling orchestration of the closing “Back to the Start” hits around the 4-minute mark, you’re pretty well spent, but the album’s overall restorative outlook definitely urges return visits.
Clearly, I’m pretty smitten. And to be terribly honest (and honestly terrible), I wasn’t expecting to be smitten, given my on-again-off-again relationship with the band’s more recent work. What’s likely to be the ultimate factor tempting stragglers in is the fact that The Optimist does what most expect of Anathema – maudlin and thoughtful elegance – but it does so with a less sappy intonation, and with a curious sense of optimism brought about by a sort of comprehensive absolution behind its delivery. How the general public responds to The Optimist obviously remains to be seen, but it has worked its way into my marrow quickly, and its lasting effect is something I genuinely look forward to discovering.