Lawrence English – Cruel Optimism

Posted: 6 February 2017 in Albums
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Room40 – 17th February 2017

Christopher Nosnibor

The title carries an implicit connotation of juxtaposition. It’s also a direct reference to the 2011 text by Lauren Berlant, which explores power and the ‘cruel optimism that has prevailed since the 1980s, as the social-democratic promise of the postwar period in the United States and Europe has retracted’ and the collapse of the liberal-capitalist dream.

English explains the album’s context as follows: ‘Over the course of creating the record, we collectively bore witness to a new wave of humanitarian and refugee crisis (captured so succinctly in the photograph of Alan Kurdi’s tiny body motionless on the shore), the black lives matter movement, the widespread use of sonic weapons on civilians, increased drone strikes in Waziristan, Syria and elsewhere, and record low numbers of voting around Brexit and the US election cycle, suggesting a wider sense of disillusionment and powerlessness. Acutely for me and other Australians, we’ve faced dire intolerance concerning race and continued inequalities related to gender and sexuality. The storm has broken and feels utterly visceral. Cruel Optimism is a meditation on these challenges and an encouragement to press forward towards more profound futures.’

For Cruel Optimism, English has enlisted, amongst others, Swans contributors Norman Westberg and Thor Harris. As their recent excursions outside Swans demonstrate, they are both musicians capable of magnificently nuanced sound – a stark contrast to the shuddering power of Swans in full force. They bring subtle, understated performances to the pieces on which they feature here. Tony Buck and Chris Abrahams of The Necks are also featured, although again, their input is suitably muted and the line-up is far from overplayed in the promotional materials which accompany the album.

A sense of contrast and contradiction is woven into the fabric of the soundscapes which combine to form Cruel Optimism, as soft layers drift down over coarser, grainer sonic terrains beneath. There are moments of darkness, shadowy, vaguely unsettling but not overtly eeriy or horrific, tempered equally by moments of tranquillity and light ‘Hammering a Screw’, as its title suggests, is an awkward, jarring piece. Sinister chords jam and jolt abrasively, rupturing the soft tissue of sound which hangs almost invisibly in the air while fluttering heartbeats pulse erratically way down in the mix. ‘Negative Drone’ rumbles ominously, a formless, amorphous cloud of sound which bleeds into the must-like atmospherics of ‘The Somnambulist’. The album ends with the entwined drones of ‘Moribund Territories’, which offers a tone of bleakness which intimates the dissipation of optimism in the face of a chilling future.

Writing in October 2016, English described the album as an album of ‘protest against the immediate threat of abhorrent possible futures’. Depressingly, those futures have arrived, and we are now living in dark, dark times. But for all of the turbulence which motivated the compositions and the underlying anxiety poured into their realisation, Cruel Optimism is a beautifully calm album, in the main – or at least, it maintains a calm exterior. As such it’s a work of peaceful protest, which succeeds in making itself heard in a loud, violent, and ugly world.

 

RM470_Lawrence_English_Cruel_Optimism

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