Cruel Optimism by Lawrence EnglishRelease date: February 17, 2017
Can abstract music be political? Lawrence English describes Cruel Optimism, his latest record in a wildly prolific career, as a protest record inspired by a Lauren Berlant treatise by the same name. Her book dealt with the unfulfilled promise of Western Capitalism and with it the slow, lingering death of the ‘good life’ dream among those living under it. But if we heard the album without having that context prescribed to us, would it be an obviously political piece? Can a wordless album of disconcerting noise really say anything concrete?
In the current climate it would inevitably sound political to those of a particular persuasion. Just as a starving person sees everything in terms of food, anyone feeling utterly lost when faced with recent and ongoing events will listen closely to anything for signs of dissent, for siren songs of like-minded fear and loathing. But the real power of English’s latest work is that even without that gloom looming over it Cruel Optimism would still sound like it was railing against something. It could have been released at any time and still have seemed as uneasy with the world as it does now.
His first full length proper since 2014’s The Wilderness of Mirrors bristles with anxiety, sounding in turns frightened and frightening. It sees a shift in the way English works towards a more collaborative method, opening his doors to guest musicians for the first time. After years running his Room40 label he’s made a lot of talented friends and is able to call upon the likes of Thor Harris, Heinz Riegler, Chris Abrahams and Norman Westberg amongst others. But there are no standout cameos to be heard; all the human elements seem to dissipate into the all encompassing miasma of Cruel Optimism. You hear the odd piece of finger picked guitar that drifts in and out, some gallows strings here and there, a piano that sounds like it’s being played by a storm. But they all cower beneath the towering drones and barely tamed static.
It’s a dense, saturated sound that is at times overwhelming – if any of it is used for a TV/film soundtrack it would have to be playing over an extinction level event. Anything less would be overkill. As such it feels like a natural escalation from The Wilderness of Mirrors, an album preoccupied with the turbulence and the traumas of the cold war which saw him begin to occupy a similar abrasive sonic space to his friends and collaborators Ben Frost and Tim Hecker. With it’s influences more current Cruel Optimism inevitably sounds more urgent and raw. From ‘Hard Rain’ onwards it’s a troubled sky of dark clouds, swirling winds and ominous bass hums. Whenever it seems to settle down like on ‘The Quietest Shore’ the serenity is always punctured. Nothing is safe. The tide always seems to be rising.
Those looking for metaphors amidst the noise won’t have to search far. There are recurring moments of voices struggling to be heard over the maelstrom throughout the record – it’s not much of a stretch to compare that to the state of political discourse. Both ‘Hammering a Screw’ and ‘Object Of Projection ()’ are defined by the repetition of huge crashing sounds, like restless waves assaulting a coastline. On the latter there’s a whoosh and a smash, like a car aquaplaning into an embankment, a the forensic replaying of an accident in the hopes of finding some truth or meaning in it. Not unlike those seen in newspaper columns and heard on podcasts in the aftermath of the elections and referendums of the past year.
But is it truly political? Am I reading too much into it? That’s ultimately in the ear of the beholder. It’s certainly an impressive work – a visceral, oppressive piece that, when under it’s weight in headphones, inspires genuine awe. Whether or not you agree it is truly about power it’s undeniable in it’s use of it, feeling as it does like some elemental force being not so much manipulated as unleashed upon the listener. As for what it means, all I can say for certain is this – Cruel Optimism sounds like I feel now whenever I turn on the news, whenever I check my twitter feed or whenever I hear the words ‘executive order,’ ‘fake news’ or ‘the will of the people.’ At this troubled moment in our history I don’t feel music can get much more political than that.