The Unremarkable 'Optimist' by FINNEAS
With eight Grammys already under his belt, singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Finneas Baird O’Connell a.k.a. FINNEAS has finally dropped his debut studio album, ‘Optimist’. Of course, we have some thoughts about it.
This has clearly been the season of lockdown-induced introspective albums highlighting a certain disenchantment with fame and a sensitivity towards all that is happening around the world - Lorde’s Solar Power, Clairo’s Sling, Billie’s Happier Than Ever - Finneas’ 'Optimist' being the latest addition. Contrary to what the name suggests, the album has a rather pensive, poignant tone, and is aspirationally optimistic, as the artist describes it himself. It’s a self-indulgent, exploratory project that is reminiscent of Coldplay’s Chris Martin with lightness of the acoustic guitar, and Labrinth’s intensity and depth in pieces that are dominated by the piano, accompanied by Finneas’s signature catchy beats and transitions from light instrumentals to heavy drops sprinkled with some EDM influences.
Most reviews for 'Optimist' do not shy away from doing the obvious - comparing it to Eilish’s 'Happier Than Ever', released only two months ago. But can one really stop themselves from doing that? Right off the bat, it’s clear that the themes 'Optimist' engages with are very similar to those dealt with in 'Happier Than Ever' - the siblings ruminate on love, loss, growing old, becoming famous, and dealing with said fame. It’s no surprise too, since the both of them work in proximity most of the time, their influence on each other’s work is more than evident. However, it feels like Billie has been able to maintain a palpable individuality in her own work, something that doesn’t come out in 'Optimist' - this is not just particular to a comparison between the siblings, but more emblematic of Finneas’ album in general. There’s nothing in particular that jumps out and screams in your face to announce that Finneas, the artist, is here.
In an interview with the New York Times he confessed, “why would I hire someone else to do something I know how to do and can execute myself?” There’s no denying the fact that 'Optimist' is an extraordinarily well-done album considering the majority of writing, arrangement, production, and all of the singing is attributed to Finneas alone. But one can’t help but wonder whether an outsider’s perspective could’ve helped bring a certain kind of boldness to the album.
The 24 year old artist nails two things on his debut album - being honest, and being able to showcase the full range of his vocal capabilities - apart from flaunting his proficiency as a skilled producer. However, except for one or two songs, "A Concert Six Months From Now" and "The 90s", nothing from the album really stands out, so much so that it’s dangerously close to being boring - not quite, but almost there.
It’s hard to imagine Finneas as the same artist who gave Billie’s songs an edge that made people either absolutely love her or, well, hate her. This is not to say that Finneas doesn’t have his moments, but the album feels too safe of a bet. It plays like a people-pleaser - something everyone will resonate with, something that will keep people in their comfort zone. He fails to go down the risque route that could’ve potentially set him apart; and perhaps that wouldn’t have been a problem if it was truly his debut, but his critically acclaimed precedent has set a certain standard to judge the album by. For someone who knows exactly what people want to hear, Finneas delivers clichés that leave you wanting something more.
Songs like "A Concert Six Months From Now", "Love is Pain" and "Hurt Locker" play as love ballads, while "Happy Now?" and "Medieval" engage with Finneas’s conundrums of dealing with fame. "The Kids Are All Dying", "The 90s", "What They’ll Say About Us" and "How It Ends" deal with larger societal and political themes like protests and cancel culture. On the other hand, songs like "Peaches Etude", an instrumental piano piece, and "Around My Neck", a sassy song with sexual innuendos (which sounds a lot like Eilish’s "Oxytocin"), though interesting pieces in their own right, almost feel like they don’t fit on the same album, being very different in their construction and themes.
Nostalgia and loss are heavy in songs like "Only a Lifetime" (I'm unprepared/ For my loved ones to be gone/ Call 'em way too often now/ Worry way too much about mom) and "Love is Pain" (There's this dream I've had 'bout mom and dad/ Makes me so sad, I wake up crying/ Can't believe I'll have to live through that/ Wish it wasn't mandatory dying), mostly referring to his extreme separation anxiety as a child, where he'd constantly worry about his parents dying and this fear carrying over into adulthood.
The inevitability of death, especially in times of Covid, is interwoven into these songs as well, very similar to Eilish’s "Everybody Dies". These are things where he truly shines through using insightful, raw lyrics. While there are some invigorating moments on the album, it ends up being a groan fest with the constant self-flagellation (I know my pool is heated/ Business class is where I'm seated, So take a drive around town in my douchebag car/ Like the superstar that I pretend to be) and cringe lines like “And I’m whiter than the ivory on these keys.”
In the end, any form of art is a pursuit in self-expression, in hopes that others will be comforted, or made uneasy, and what Finneas is able to do is present himself as relatable. This heavy introspection, aspirational hope and constant struggle to maintain a fine balance between the self and the larger world - though oftentimes extremely superficial - is perhaps unavoidable as a sign of our times.