Lawrence English – Cruel Optimism (Room40, 2017)

Cruel Optimism

I’ve been reading a lot about the Eiger lately, the harsh North Face of that unforgiving mountain which has rebuffed many an attempt made to conquer it, overcoming the best climbers and the most willful men, robbing some of their lives in the process. Often they have been presented with a difficult choice in the face of nature’s wrath: to precariously descend to safety down the precipitous slope; or to continue onwards and climb their way to safety via the summit.

For many, the notion of turning back was not a practical one, for others impossible. For some, it was unacceptable: salvation would lie upwards for them, either by climbing out, or by dying in the process.

Cruel Optimism¬†reminds me of that evil face as it unwinds its political drama, echoing the discord which seems to have grown so thick and fast between people lately. It hammers us immediately in the crushing drone dissolution of “Hard Rain”, this pre-existing storm of scouring and oppressive sound that just seems to drown out all light and goodness in the world.

Reservations seem to come and go, wondering whether this Earth would be better without us as in the stoic solemnity of “The Quietest Shore”, removing the human traffic from its hollow beach vista after the storm of the opener. “Requiem For A Reaper/Pillar of Cloud” finds itself on similar ground also, an ashen piece that carries itself on placid updraughts away from the torturous existence of Mankind’s self-destruction below. Instrumental menace litters the backfield like detritus; particulate garbage hovering in the lucid sky, fire flickering in revolt beneath.

Two elements have caused this mess: human voice, and human action. “Exquisite Human Microphone” is the former, a melodramatic number that advances in unhurried drones, arriving fully in disarming blasts of sonic excrescence. It spends its time simmering and stewing, kneading fears and anxieties before erupting in damaging, toxic thunder. It translates into action as “Objective of Projection” arrives, turning those striking klaxons into sustained passages of dense and seemingly unassailable noise.

It grates in its power and ugliness, its stupid single-mindedness that seems so unwilling and inflexible. Yet nothing is done.

“Negative Drone” moves as though in timelapse, its stringed arpeggios and straining noise thickets just watch it all unravel like a flickering slideshow of headlines, scrubbing through social media and seeing all the muted violence and angst just tick by endlessly. What are we to do? “Somnambulist” zones it all out in response, greying out into wilful ignorance and apathy. But it wont go away, we’re warned, closing our eyes still leaves us perched on our vengeful Eiger.

And it slews into closing “Moribund Territory” with fearful ease, our decline into death by our inaction a fateful, irrevocable, inevitability. Human voice hums and croons on the icy drone wind that blows across the face, a softly mournful cry of despair. Hope was relinquished, and with it all was lost all possibility of escape, spiraling pitifully into blackness.

That is our damnable choice: to rescind, to remain, or to resist. It is a fearsome journey to the summit, and there’s no guarantee of success, but how can we stand at this juncture and not put up a fight?