“Optimist” is Finneas O’Connell’s debut studio album, and it’s about time. FINNEAS is an established producer, song-writer and eight-time Grammy winner. However, he is perhaps most famous for producing and co-writing the albums of his sister, the one and only Billie Eilish. With that in my mind, FINNEAS has a rather high standard to meet. In “Optimist,” he stretches himself to the occasion, producing, writing and playing most of the instrumentals himself, not to mention the singing itself. What’s most impressive is how natural it is; neither the production nor the instrumentation interfere with the flow of the record.
“Happy Now?” is the first highlight of the album. It manages to balance out the feelings of loneliness that are so prevalent in FINNEAS’ projects. Despite the lamentful title and the haunted choruses, the song carries on an almost playful vibe. In between choruses, he jokes about driving around town in “my douchebag car … like the superstar I pretend to be.” Rather than losing relatability through the classic “I’m successful, but I’m still sad” song, FINNEAS is surprisingly self-aware. Although he is exceedingly successful, he isn’t exactly a superstar either. The upbeat instrumental dances off of FINNEAS’ vocals. Overall, it’s a refreshing take on a sad song.
The album hits its stride in “The 90s,” the fifth song of the album. The song seems cookie-cutter at first; the first verse is about FINNEAS complaining about the internet. Maybe you get lulled into a few eye-rolls. That’s when FINNEAS gets you. With each repetition of the chorus, the aggression of the instrumentation creeps up until you’re hit with straight blaring sirens. His vocals are so overlayed with auto-tune and production at this point that it’s hard to hear where the singer ends and the computer begins. The excessive autotune may be a hard sell for some, but to me, the descent into musical chaos is nothing short of euphoria. Hyperbole aside, the thematic content of the song was deeper than I expected. Rather than overcooked nostalgia over the past and complaints about things like “technology” and “trap music,” FINNEAS sings about his struggle with privacy as a celebrity, hating “how easy they can find me, just by looking up my Mom’s address.” He reveals that his nostalgia for the ‘90s is not based on the actual merit of the time, but upon the “beautiful and shiny” possibilities that have been chipped away as his career took off.
In my opinion, the album loses a great deal of energy by the tail half. “Only A Lifetime” is a prototypical FINNEAS sad song, but it falls short of the charisma or content needed to take it further. On the other hand, “Peaches Etude” is a piano instrumental by FINNEAS, dedicated to his puppy Peaches. While short, it might be the wholesome break the album needs from its somewhat muddled cluster of sad songs.
Despite the duds, FINNEAS finishes strong with yet another sad song. Finneas’ self-doubts come out in “Someone Else’s Star” scathingly, and often at the expense of his own feelings. He refers to himself in the second-person, saying “you became someone else’s star” because he sold out to the wishes of the industry and the masses. FINNEAS does not pull any punches on himself, describing his memories as “more like films … put ‘em on to see which ones still kill.” He feels that he has lost his individuality completely, and his identity is closer to a collection of films rather than reality. The production is lightly done, but the instrumental swells perfectly with vocal changes. His vocals here are the best I’ve ever heard from him and had me enveloped in the embrace of his sadness.
Overall, FINNEAS’ debut project is a largely, if not holistically enjoyable experience. While the album stalls vocally and thematically at times, the highlights are polished and carefully crafted from the production to the vocals. I’m a very casual pop enjoyer, but I found myself enjoying a lot of the album. Here’s to many more.