Gritty, honest yet hopeful: Finneas’ ‘Optimist’ endears

Illustration of FINNEAS’s new album
Betsy Siegal/Staff

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

For the past handful of years, pop music has bent to Finneas O’Connell’s will — almost always unknowingly. He has operated mostly through his sister, the singular Billie Eilish, whose music he has almost exclusively co-written and co-produced. Recently, however, the rising star has teased a full-length project in the form of three singles: two, dreamy cinematic ballads, and the other a heavy-hitting nostalgia piece. 

In some ways, these three tracks perfectly encapsulate the aesthetic of Finneas’ debut LP, Optimist, which frequently bounces between the two extremes of soft and shrill. There’s a certain balance that Finneas finds here, in the space where Optimist lingers, that presents to its listener a fully-formed, almost therapeutic experience. We hear whispers of his past work with Eilish, but much more than that we hear a tone and vision that’s individual from his collaborators, which is rightfully dialed up to ten in this debut solo project. 

Through and through, his remarkable savvy as a composer of music stands out, expectedly — but possibly unexpectedly is his unique voice as a lyricist, which threads together each track near seamlessly. His perspective is uncanny, timely and extremely aware of the state of the world, sometimes even lamenting about its chaos. Optimist is able to find lyrical beauty among this chaos, seeing various aspects of life and its complications as intricate pieces in a complex human experience. 

 “The Kids Are All Dying” — one of the record’s opening tracks — holds this perspective closely, pondering what it means to be a songwriter, an artist in a climate that harms so many. Songs like these tackle grandiose themes such as morality, fame and politics with impressive nuance and poise. And though not revolutionary, his style and clear attention to craft make these tracks hit hard and heavy, leaving their listener with much to ponder. This fact alone is one of Optimist’s key strengths, but far from its only one. 

Finneas interjects an alluring intimacy throughout the record, offering much-needed juxtaposition to its much broader, more impersonal themes. He does this smartly, too; in between life-questioning moral conundrums, we see a softer side of his lyrical and instrumental talent, manifesting in muffled ballads about love and family. While some of these dreamier tracks he clearly dedicates to a lover, others he seems to allude to his sister, Eilish, who seems to have become his partner in their journey through musical stardom. 

On these, possibly the record’s most intriguing efforts, Finneas pulls back the curtain on a more personal side of his life, at times even sharing advice for his younger sister as she reaches new heights of her fame. These moments are delicate and gorgeously arranged, and even further amplified by the fact that they typically go unheard. But Finneas, as is his artistic pattern, does not hold back. He gives us these fragments of time and familial bonds raw and unfiltered, making their presence and uniqueness undeniable. 

In a word, Optimist feels uncanny. And while it follows the path many alternative artists are taking right now, exploring the effects of fame, the record’s heart and soul is uniquely Finneas. It takes risks, it breaks form, and it remains true to what it is — notes on humanity, notes on love, and notes on family. 

Listeners may wonder why the record is titled as it is because at times it does truly feel like a pessimist’s take on life. But in truth, the record’s optimism is hidden in its focus on the personal, where it, and likely Finneas too, find hope. In doing so, he pushes his audience to find their hope as well; to find what makes them optimistic about life in spite of all the pain and injustice it thrusts upon us, and to hold it close. To drown out the chaos that comes with living, and keep in clear view what makes us yearn for tomorrow and everything that comes after. 

Contact Ryan Garay at [email protected].