Music I Love: The Optimist, by Anathema

Album: The Optimist
Artist: Anathema
Year: 2017

Track Listing:

  1. 32.63n 117.14w
  2. Leaving It Behind
  3. Endless Ways
  4. The Optimist
  5. San Francisco
  6. Springfield
  7. Ghosts
  8. Can’t Let Go
  9. Close Your Eyes
  10. Wildfires
  11. Back to the Start

Anathema are an oddity of a band, and I love them for it. From their roots as a doom/death metal outfit in the early 1990s (in fact considered one of the “Peaceville Three” along with Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride, founding the British doom scene at the time), they’ve evolved over the past two and half decades into something much more spiritual and emotive.

Their big turnaround came after a seven-year break between A Natural Disaster (2003) and We’re Here Because We’re Here (2010), when they more or less reinvented themselves – not in terms of sound, but in terms of spirit. Where songs from the former album drag the listener on a journey of panic and despair:

Shadows are forming take heed of the warnings
Creeping around at four in the morning
Lie to myself start a brand new beginning
But I’m losing myself in this fear of living

Pulled Under at 2000 Metres a Second – A Natural Disaster

We’re Here Because We’re Here presents an entirely different shift of perspective:

Needed time to clear my mind
Breathe the free air find some peace there
I used to keep my heart in jail
But the choice was love or fear of pain and
And I chose love

Everything – We’re Here Because We’re Here

This spiritual optimism is carried forward throughout their subsequent albums, Weather Systems and Distant Satellites, and persists on their latest release, The Optimist. The irony here is that The Optimist is a sort of loose concept album based on the cover art for their 2001 effort A Fine Day to Exit – arguably their darkest and most depressing release ever.

Opening with a prelude track (which includes snippets of previous Anathema songs) that sounds like someone dragging themselves back to a car after trying to drown themselves in the ocean, we move seamlessly into the first song, Leaving It Behind, opening with a patter of electronic drumbeats before a dark storm of semi-distorted guitar washes over everything.

Yet not all is so gloomy; tracks such as Endless Ways and the title track are gentler, with soothing piano and soaring melodies, harkening back to the early days of their reinvention with We’re Here Because We’re Here and Weather Systems.

Anathema have settled on a sound that works for them; a distinct blend of acoustic, electric and electronic that is at once familiar and yet instantly identifiable. If there is a criticism to this album compositionally it is that the band relies heavily on ostinato, with endlessly repeating refrains over which the lyrics are sung in duet by both Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas, alternating between Cavanagh’s angsty vocals and Douglas’ soulful melodies.

It’s hard for me to say this is my favorite Anathema album; to me, their best work remains in the past, when they were dark and depressing and matched my mood so well. That being said, this is the sound of a band at their peak maturity, knowing what works for them and running with it. Of their four “new” albums, The Optimist stands out head and shoulders above the others, and for good reason: it truly is an exemplary vision of spiritual indie rock at its best.