The Anathema that released A Fine Day To Exit in 2001 is not the same Anathema that has just released The Optimist. Both bands consist largely of the same members, including the Cavanagh Brothers and Lee Douglas, now a full-time member of the group, but in terms of overall philosophy, changes are stark and hard to ignore. The last track of A Fine Day To Exit, “Temporary Peace,” featured a sound collage of someone parking their car by the seaside and entering the waves. The cover art depicted a suicide by drowning, from the cabin of a vehicle. The ephemera in the photo showed vague hints of a horrific regret. The question that lingered over the album, while not a concept record in the strict sense of it was, “Can you live with yourself after a tragedy?” The album’s despairing response seemed to be “no.”
But this isn’t that Anathema, and the opening track of The Optimist, “32.63N 117.14W” returns to that soundscape. The man swims back to shore, gets back in the car and, tellingly, straps his seatbelt on. He gasps for air. Clearly, he’s not ready to shuck off life just yet. Thus, the narrative of the record — that even when faced with living with terrible consequences, living is the key — has already defined itself in a much different way than its predecessor, and the music hasn’t even started yet.
Trading vocal duties with Daniel and Vincent Cavanagh, Lee Douglas asserts herself as a vital and necessary component of the band mix this time out. Not that she didn’t sound terrific on previous outings, but in this album’s context, her voice continually reflects hope, whereas Vincent, who was the primary vocalist on A Fine Day To Exit, embodies doubt and uncertainty and, at times, anger.
So too, the record moves stylistically through lots of moods and changes, from gentle, piano-driven ballads straight into hard rock territory, to unsettling electronic touches. The instrumental “San Francisco” pulses somewhere between Giorgio Moroder’s “Chase (Theme From Midnight Express)” and Boards of Canada-esque cinematic wooziness. The narrative seems to track this character of The Optimist through ups and downs of reconciliation and relapses of despair, and by the time we get to the final track, “Back To The Start,” it seems like we’ve come back to where we started at the water’s edge, back to questions and matters of life and death. But again, this is a different Anathema than before.
For those who have been taking this ride with the band, from the epic depths of the previously mentioned album from 2001 and the following A Natural Disaster, to the resurgent and revivified We’re Here Because We’re Here and on, The Optimist acts as a level-headed victory lap of sorts. Strictly from a song perspective, the group has never sounded better, more focused, and more purpose-driven than now. It takes courage to revisit an older album, and let’s be clear. A Fine Day To Exit is a fantastic record, but it is bleak. Its final statement has stood, for nearly a decade and a half, unchallenged. That the band should reengage with this presumed storyline and say, in essence, that a fine day is one where one cheats exits for the promise of forgiveness and further entrances, should give moody, doomy prog rock lovers pause.
Anathema’s The Optimist isn’t about platitudes and smile emojis. It isn’t about feel-good escapism (and some moments on the record indeed feel like this story could go either way), but it is about hope…which you can only tap into so long as you’re alive. This new(er) Anathema is worth spending your time with.