by Conor Fynes
Anathema have had one of the most striking shifts in style and tone I’ve ever seen in a band’s career. I’m not even necessarily talking about the shift from their early death-doom to rainy day Pink Floyd either, although that certainly stands out as an ambitious turn. No, in this case I’m talking about that born-again transformation from depressive sulkers to larger-than-life cheerlords in 2010 with We’re Here Because We’re Here. There was still that sense of melancholy, sure, but unlike the acquiescence to despair come manifest in an album like Judgement or Alternative 4, the newly invigorated Anathema seemed to preach art-rock optimism at every twist and corner. That newfound sense of cheer following such darkness felt like a bigger transformation than any change of genre they’ve pulled. My first reaction was to think that Anathema’s emotional salvation towards the light was kind of beautiful—after all, if such world-weary men could find love and meaning, wouldn’t that bode well for the rest of us yet trapped in the depths?
Anathema managed to fuel this life-loving spirit into one of their best records to date with Weather Systems; all the same, it didn’t take a long time before I began to realize the emotional tone was beginning to feel trite, certainly far more so than any of the depressive material. The explanation for this is simple: Like a former drug addict who is saved by the cross and turns their addiction towards preaching for Christ, the optimistic turn for Anathema was imbued with this gratingly sanctimonious bent. The lyrics started looking less like expressive poetry and more like motivational slogans. The music too seemed more broadly inspirational than intimate by the point of Distant Satellites. When that last record was released a couple of years back, my girlfriend at the time overheard me listening to it and said something along the lines of, ‘They must have rubbed their purity rings together extra hard this time around.’ She always had an easy time making me laugh, and in this case she wasn’t wrong.
Now seven years into the light-transformation on We’re Here Because We’re Here, Anathema have released a new album to the masses. Whether it’s a matter of the band themselves or the fact that I’ve arguably become a nastier person over the years, their overbearing ‘let the love in!’ sanctimony became an increasingly blacker spot on my opinion of one of my all-time favourite bands. The triteness has been a growing concern now for years, so of course I scoffed a bit when I found out the album was called The Optimist, as if they no longer even felt the need to employ poetic devices in their smiles propaganda. Allusions to A Fine Day to Exit aside, this very much sounds like Anathema falling deeper down that well. The music is fairly solid of course, but this may be the first case where I know the sense of emotional blandness isn’t just my grouchy disposition talking.
I may have been overzealous in my criticisms of the tone in these albums. Even if I had the proverbial bone to pick with the preachy tone, the material across We’re Here Because We’re Here and Weather Systems in particular was incredible. Acting as a sort of sequel to A Fine Day to Exit, The Optimist hits a lot of solid marks musically. ‘Leaving It Behind’ resembles Radiohead, ‘Endless Ways’ is a sonic catharsis, and ‘Springfield’ is a slow-building dark piano tune while the title track itself skirts the line between cheerfulness and sadness. Like its spiritual predecessor, The Optimist doesn’t seem to flow particularly well, but it manages to make up for that in terms of its variety and atmosphere. A drawn-out ‘feeling-full’ anthem clunker ‘Back to the Start’ is the only questionable track here. The rest managed to hit their mark in some way.
A lot of that might have been predicted easily enough by listening to Distant Satellites and drawing a few ‘what if’ conclusions from that. There are some incredible songs on the album, but as a whole, it lacks the cohesion to really define itself in some fresh way like Weather Systems or A Natural Disaster did. In the context of Anathema’s career, The Optimist gets its character in a different way. I’m referring, of course, to that insufferably trite lyrical and tonal quality that Anathema have been fermenting. Although the sloganeering has been a growing problem in their lyrics for a while, the lyrics are almost entirely comprised of these dime-store inspirational mottos and garden-variety inspiration. While I was completely sold by their fresh approach on We’re Here Because We’re Here, that’s in part because it was fresh; the lyrics here are recycled sanctimony at best and rose-tinted Mad Libs at their worst. None of the vocalists are able to convincingly sell any of the fortune-cookie messages they’re attempting to pass off for lyrics. Words rarely have such a major impact on an album.
It is really unfortunate that The Optimist suffers from incoherence and the saccharine drivel that’s passing for lyrical content these days. The album still might not stand as one of the better chapters in Anathema’s career if both issues were fixed, but there’s enough of that inimitable flair for atmosphere and beauty to make me wonder what could have been.