When preparing for the release of a debut album, many artists are encouraged to “play it safe.” They should tailor their music and tracklist to the listeners, curate the album in a way that will guarantee it a spot on the charts, and stick with the current music trends. In his debut album Optimist, singer-songwriter-producer Finneas seems to do the opposite of “playing it safe.” Most famously known for writing and producing with his sister Billie Eilish, there is no doubt that the eight-time Grammy Award Winner knows the ins-and-outs of the music industry and the importance, or lack thereof, of playing it safe. The album follows 23 singles and an EP, none of which appear to strictly follow music trends. It’s part of what makes Optimist so special and nostalgic and is the reason it will be timely for many years to come.
The album opens with the pop-rock masterpiece “A Concert Six Months From Now.” The song was written in 2017 about taking his now ex-girlfriend to a concert six months away and finding it hard to believe that they could still be together by then. In the midst of COVID, the idea of seeing “a concert six months from now” has an entirely new meaning, leaving the interpretation of the song relatively open-ended. Combining a multitude of genres and production styles while remaining rather acoustic, this track is the perfect introduction to Finneas’ artistry and the rest of the album.
The irony of the name of the album becomes apparent in the next two songs, “The Kids Are All Dying” and “Happy Now.” Through these two tracks, Finneas opens up a dialogue about mental health, social media, and false ideologies about fame. He also brings up the idea of the future or lack of future. If we don’t put ourselves to work now (whether that be fighting against climate change or advocating for our own mental health), we might not see any future at all. He questions his own motives behind writing about love, sex, and money when the world is falling apart beneath our feet. Both tracks are heavily rooted in pop lyricism and production. “Happy Now” also reflects some of the production qualities that can be heard in “Billie Bossa Nova”—a song he and Billie Eilish wrote and produced for her sophomore album Happier Than Ever which was released earlier this year.
Tracks 4 and 6 are beautiful piano ballads that continue to touch on the pain of the future and saying goodbye to the past. “Only A Lifetime” emphasizes the importance of not taking anything for granted and making the most of what you have while “Love Is Pain” deals with heartbreak. With simple production and deep lyrics, these songs are heartbreakingly beautiful and fit perfectly within the album.
Strategically placed right in between tracks 4 and 6 is the album’s lead single “The 90s”: a song in which Finneas yearns for “a world without the internet.” The lyrics highlight Finneas’ ability to put abstract concepts into words. The electronic-alt-pop production is somewhat of a shock to the system following the album’s first piano ballad. It certainly makes tracks 4-6 stand out, but The 90s might be a song that works better on its own as opposed to being part of the album.
The album’s interlude is a piano piece sans lyrics titled “Peaches Etude” dedicated to his bulldog Peaches. Short, sweet, and simple, it shows off Finneas’ true musical, specifically instrumental, talent.
This brief instrumental pause is followed by “Hurt Locker.” It’s the album’s first love song that continues to touch on the ideas of leaving the past behind and looking ahead towards the future. The production quality is nostalgic and helps bring forward the lyrics and storyline he’s put into play.
In the next songs titled “Medieval” and “Someone Else’s Star,” Finneas discusses cancel culture and how the pressure from social media and cancel culture can force people with a following to grow up too fast. Someone Else’s Star is speculated to be a letter to his sister Billie, encouraging her to stay in the present and not let the pressure of fame get to her.
The final three songs cover a multitude of topics and genres in a short amount of time. “Around My Neck” has sexy and sophisticated lyrics surrounded by pure pop production. It feels slightly off-brand in comparison to the rest of the album and Finneas’ earlier music, but that only makes the song more memorable.
The penultimate track is “What They’ll Say About Us.” This piano ballad was released on the 2nd of September of 2020, almost a year before the album’s release. Finneas wrote the song “in June after spending the day at a protest in Downtown LA, filled with hope with the prospect that millions of people were coming together from all over the world to fight against institutionalized racism and inequality” (Finneas for WSJ). At the same time, he was also following Amanda Kloots’ documentation of her journey after her husband Nick Cordero contracted COVID-19 and was admitted to the ICU in a medically induced coma. The song is dedicated to anyone who had to endure 2020. Heartbreaking and inspiring, it’s the perfect way to begin the closing of the album.
“How It Ends” feels like the cherry on top of Optimist. The lyrics perfectly summarize and bring together everything that the album has touched on up to this point. It reminds listeners that, just like anything, our lives have an expiration date and it’s important that we use our time wisely. We can spend our limited time trying to become Hollywood millionaires and buy fancy cars, but in the long run that has such little value and benefit to us and the future. The simple nostalgic production wraps it all up, perfectly placing a seal on the album.
Overall, Optimist is an impressive debut album and is one that should make you “optimistic” for the future of music.