In recent years, my expectations of what a new Lawrence English album might sound like have gotten increasingly blurry, as he has an admirable tendency to explore new concepts and collaborations that lure him far away from the classic drone fare that initially put him on the map. Cruel Optimism is arguably a return to English's more straightforward drone work in some ways, but it feels like quite a corroded and scorched return, which certainly fits nicely with English's somewhat dark conceptual inspiration. Needless to say, it is a characteristically fine album and quite a distinctive one as well, evoking a kind of bleak orchestral grandeur flourishing amidst crumbling ruin and decay.
Cruel Optimism takes its title and some of its inspiration from Lauren Berlant's book of the same name. I am sure Berlant’s book would be quite hard to succinctly summarize even if I had read it, but English was most fascinated by how she addressed trauma, observing "it was a jumping off point from which a plague of unsettling impressions of suffering, intolerance, and ignorance could be unpacked and utilized as fuel over and above pointless frustration." Wresting beauty from a plague of unsettling impressions is not an easy task, but English had plenty of help from a slew of talented collaborators including Mats Gustafsson, members of Swans, Chris Abrahams from The Necks, and a full choir (Australian Voices). On paper, a drone artist teaming up with (almost) a couple dozen vocalists, trombonists, pianists, and saxophonists sounds like a perfect recipe for a wildly misguided and overblown mess, but most of the contributors are only present in simmering and understated form. In fact, it almost sounds like English made two albums: the first was a sweepingly dramatic quasi-symphonic epic, then the second (and final) one was an obliteration of that material. Aside from the uncharacteristic brass and choral textures, Cruel Optimism sounds a lot like an unusually dense album that English could have made on his own (given enough time...and maybe a trombone).
That said, however, density is definitely one of Cruel Optimism's defining characteristics, as is its stark and foreboding mood. There are occasionally lulls and crescendos, but Cruel Optimism mostly feels like a sky choked with slow-moving black clouds with only the merest flickers of sunlight breaking through. Or perhaps like a creeping flow of unpredictably bubbling magma. The latter image is most strongly evoked by the album’s glorious centerpiece, "Object of Projection," where an elegiac procession of lush synth chords is enhanced by surging washes of hiss. Another stand-out is the brief "Exquisite Human Microphone," as Gustafsson's subdued and throbbing sax drones unexpectedly erupt into erratic brass swells amidst a drifting haze of strangled howls and processed piano textures. I was also quite fond of "Somnambulist," which builds to a wonderful crescendo of roiling hiss and buried guitar shimmer. For the most part, however, Cruel Optimism feels like ten variations upon a single dark theme rather than a suite of individual songs. Unsurprisingly, that aesthetic choice has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, the whole album blurs together into a somewhat monochromatic and glacially unfolding reverie without much in the way of dynamic variation or melody. On the other, Cruel Optimism feels achieves a kind of bleakly monolithic majesty. Now that I say that, it belatedly occurs to me that this album is kind of Lawrence English's own Monoliths and Dimensions.
As striking as it is, trying to assess how Cruel Optimism fits into English’s oeuvre is a somewhat tricky endeavor, as I do not think it is quite on the same level as his best work if judged by strictly by "entertainment" considerations such as beauty, listenability, or immersiveness. Viewed as an artistic statement, however, Cruel Optimism is quite a bold and focused move forward. For one, it is both distinctive and devoid of any obvious outside (musical) influences: it does not sound like a traditional Lawrence English album and it certainly does not resemble anyone else either. English could easily keep revisiting familiar territory and probably churn out a wonderful, yet straightforward and unchallenging, drone album every year. Instead, each of his recent albums has felt like an artist restlessly stretching and pushing the boundaries of his aesthetic and some of those experiments work better than others. To its credit, Cruel Optimism leaves the comfort zone much farther behind than most. Lawrence English is clearly not a man who is content to repeat himself at this stage in his career. He is also not a chameleon: all of the expected Lawrence English tropes are still in place here, but they are presented in almost unrecognizably scorched and blackened form. That might not be the easiest and most satisfying way to experience English's vision, but this is not the easiest and most satisfying time to be alive and Cruel Optimism is a compelling honest and artistic refraction of that reality.