Arts & Life

Lyricism falls short of expectations on FINNEAS debut album ‘Optimist’

Nov. 29, 2021, 8:41 p.m.

Producer and singer-songwriter Finneas O’Connell appears as FINNEAS in his recently released debut album, “Optimist.” The 13-track album is a scream against the injustices of society — racism, politics and internet violence, to name a few.

Except, it isn’t.

The album isn’t loud, coherent or rebellious enough for the kinds of topics he’s addressing, leaving us with a hollow, mildly chaotic array of jumbled political statements to wrap our heads around.

FINNEAS has already revolutionized the music industry due to his jarring, genre-breaking productions with Billie Ellish; he draws soundscapes that incorporate bone-shaking bass and otherworldly chords to morph pop into something no one has ever heard before. I’m almost hesitant to write “debut” alongside his name, considering that he has won eight Grammy awards in the last two years. But this time, he attempted a solo-produced project completely to his musical liking — writing, recording and mixing all by himself.

On this latest album, the artist struggles to communicate a clear stance on social issues which can tie his tracks together into a single entity. This ambivalence is illustrated in the second track, “The Kids Are All Dying,” as he points aimlessly toward all the problems in the world, never committing to a single culprit to scrutinize. In one verse he asks, “What’s your carbon footprint and could you be doing more,” and on another, “How can you sing about drugs when politicians are lying?” The song becomes more of a list of “social issues people should know about,” rather than a personal statement of his beliefs — and it gets even worse as he acknowledges his own privileges in society with the cringe-worthy lyrics, “And I’m whiter than the ivory on these keys.”

This lyrical fumble is but one of many in the album. Often his words fall flat, failing to hit their intended emotional bite. These moments verge on the side of trite and bland, turning messages fit for motivation posters into grandiose lines in the chorus.

As it is, his social message is messy and confusing, but FINNEAS further complicates the focus of the album with completely off-topic tracks. “Around My Neck” is a slimy, sticky, pop fantasization of having sex, and “Peaches Etude” is an instrumental tribute to his ex’s pitbull named Peaches. While the tunes are pleasant to the ear, they add little value to the album’s meaning as a whole.

FINNEAS knew the weight of his words in creating “Optimist.” In today’s society, where celebrities are analyzed and criticized into a deafening void, it is worth applauding the artist for taking the risk to address such controversial issues in the world. And this album isn’t the first time the artist has taken a political stance. 

In an iHeartRadio podcast, FINNEAS said, “I think that if you make yourself known as a voter that they will have to win over, you will create politicians who cater more to your desires.”

“Optimist” struggles with both its lyrics and construction. The album is a ride across genres, time and space: in “The 90s,” heavy synth distortions and autotune reminiscent of 1990s music embellish the relatively simple vocals. In “Only a Lifetime,” he sings a piano ballad that lacks any musical significance. Although the diversity in sonic textures and subject matter keeps the album out of a monotonous loop, FINNEAS songs are, unfortunately, not consistent winners.

Despite such brutal shortcomings, “Optimist” doesn’t always disappoint. In track six, “Love is Pain,” FINNEAS confesses that “there’s this dream I’ve had ‘bout mom and dad,” soon throwing the listener’s stomach into the abyss with the line, “I wish it wasn’t mandatory dying.” FINNEAS switches between delicate falsettos and strained cries of frustration and grief, his raw baritone complementing the tender timbre he creates with his voice and instrumentals. As a listener trying to be critical, I found myself intertwined in every aching syllable and the pure closeness with which he sang.

The soundscape he creates in “A Concert Six Months from Now” is also notable. He mimics a live concert as he sings to an empty crowd with an acoustic band playing in the background, creating a mix of nostalgia and hope as he says, “I’ve already purchased two seats for their show / I guess I’m an optimist.” The song draws a parallel between reuniting with his ex and coming out of the pandemic era, and the track serves as an effective hook to the rest of the album.

Although the project had disappointing moments, it wasn’t all bad. Listening to an album exploring such controversial subject matter and jarring extremes of sonic texture and tone, I was shocked — and in a good way. FINNEAS managed to build his soundscape, and I think that’s the biggest takeaway from this production. While the risks he took to share his opinions were impressive in theory, the album was ultimately too straightforward, a hollow expression of frustration.

“Optimist” expresses pessimistic hope for society, but his blunt lyrics and confusing messaging hurt the impact. If FINNEAS continues to hone in on his lyricism and craft an album as a complete body of work, I’m beginning to become optimistic about what he creates next.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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