Review: Thematically, sonically, nothing is off limits in FINNEAS’ album ‘Optimist’

FINNEAS’ somber debut album contradicts its cheerful title.

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FINNEAS’ debut album “Optimist” was released on Oct. 15. The album deals with topics such as the loss of loved ones, the implications of privilege and so-called cancel culture. (Image via Wikimedia Commons, Staff Illustration by Shaina Ahmed)

By Candace Patrick, Staff Writer

You would think an album titled “Optimist” might be, well, optimistic. This time that’s not the case. The singer-songwriter-producer FINNEAS’ debut album, released Oct. 15, features not-so-cheerful songs such as “The Kids Are All Dying,” “Hurt Locker” and “Love is Pain.” With FINNEAS’ popstar sister Billie Eilish having released her subdued sophomore album this past summer, “Happier Than Ever,” it seems the O’Connell siblings get a kick out of giving their albums misleading titles.

Along with ubiquitous topics of love and heartbreak, FINNEAS addresses heavier subjects such as so-called cancel culture, the loss of loved ones and the implications of privilege. In “The Kids Are All Dying,” he croons, “I know my pool is heated / Business class is where I’m seated / And I’m whiter than the ivory on these keys / I think too much about myself/Drink my wallet and drive my wealth / But enough about me.” Laid over a pounding beat that evokes Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids,” it’s a lyrically poignant bridge that allows him to reflect on his fortune.

In “Optimist,” FINNEAS speaks out on social issues. This is not the first time he’s used his music to do so. After Joe Biden’s election, the singer released “Where the Poison Is,” celebrating Donald Trump’s ouster. Additionally, his single “What They’ll Say About Us” was written in response to last year’s racial justice protests. 

The new album’s third song, “Happy Now?,” feels like a Billie reject, possessing the same rhythmic groove as “Billie Bossa Nova.” Though it might feel overdone to compare FINNEAS to his younger sister, in this song, the listener can draw parallels between their music and styles. The duo grew up learning and producing music together, so it’s no surprise they’ve cultivated similar sounds. 

Adding to FINNEAS’ well-established repertoire of heart-wrenching ballads, “Love is Pain” confronts the heartbreaking aspects of love — from jealousy in romantic relationships to the brutal loss of a loved one. The song’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics create a bleak tone, as he moves from fighting with a significant other to a dream foreshadowing the inevitable death of his parents. In the final chorus, he paints another tragic scene, singing, “It’s all alright until your friend runs a red light / You watch his car burst into flames / Love is pain,” with a dramatic pause emphasizing the heartache that accompanies love. 

“Optimist” is broken up by a soothing, arpeggiated instrumental piano piece titled “Peaches Etude.” An eponymous tribute to his pet pitbull, the piece showcases FINNEAS’ musical breadth and potential aptitude for scoring a movie. This simple and gentle wordless interlude — not entirely conventional for a pop album — adds a delicate flair to the rest of his more heavily produced work.  

“Around My Neck” is by far the boldest song on the album, replacing the artist’s typically mellow, romantic sound with a sulky, hi-hat driven anthem. When he erupts into a scream in the final chorus, it feels like a certain departure from the saccharine ballads FINNEAS fans may be accustomed to hearing. The song feels a little misplaced between the syrupy tracks of “Someone Else’s Star” and “What They’ll Say About Us,” but it diversifies the album. Along with the eclectic list of artists he has worked with, this gives us a taste of his potential to expand into a wider range of musical genres. Having won eight Grammy Awards for producing Billie Eilish’s music, FINNEAS’ artistic trajectory at just 24 years old is the inverse of most musicians’. His numerous accomplishments and accolades — all before releasing his first album — have made him one of the most in-demand producers in the industry; he’s worked with singers including Selena Gomez and Kid Cudi. “Optimist” is only the beginning of his long and lucrative music career. As he suggests on the album’s final track, “This isn’t how it ends / This isn’t where we put down our pens.”

A version of this story appeared in the Oct. 25, 2021, e-print edition. Contact Candace Patrick at [email protected]