To say that I approached Optica with some trepidation is putting it mildly. 2007’s Our Ill Wills is a frontrunner for my favorite album of all time, and in lieu of the disappointment that I found 2010’s Work to be, it’s been a bit of a roller-coaster for me and the SOLs.
I’m happy to report though that Optica makes for a tight, consistent, and moving listening experience. In terms of overall balance, it is one of the few records where I really like the back end more than the front.
The opening riffs on the sun-drenched ‘Sugar’ signal a return to brighter days for our Sweedish pop masters. ‘Illusions’, for me, really represents the sound I was looking for on Work but only caught glimpses of in tracks like ‘1999’. It’s just fast enough to dance to, but not frantic; not to mention a beautiful example of how lyrics can manage to be enthralling and yet mostly meaningless.
The bizarre choice of lead single/gimmick of ‘Blue Ice’ is lost on me, and when I first heard it, I resigned myself on the spot to the fact that the SOLs as I’d known and loved them were gone. ‘Blue Ice’ is the exact kind of song I’d come to loathe/ignore on Work. In the end though, the track ends up being a much needed structural pause before we are finally treated to the focal point of the album:
‘14th of July‘ was the moment I was waiting for. Once and future kings of my pop taste, the Shout Out Louds are back. Droning synth and wailing riffs wander through surprisingly well-crafted beats, which frame the painfully nostalgic lyrics that really packs some emotional weight/baggage:
Take me down on the 14th of July
Take me to the fireworks
Show me how fire works
Take me down
Take me to the room / where you grew up
I bet its got a great view
I bet no one loves you
Throw in a break-down bridge before crushing the chorus one final time, and you have the centerpiece of the record, as well as a subtle harbinger of what’s in store.
‘Burn’ is perhaps the canonical retro, lazy-sunday throwback song of the collection. Think days at the beach, matinee movies, and long walks through the neighborhood near dusk. In that vein, ‘Walking In Your Footsteps’ is proof-of-concept that the SOLs can write 70s pop so convincingly you’d swear it was authentic, not to mention a lot of fun.
‘Glasgow’, which I’ll call the first part of this track is a strange, unoffensive number, but the watery, ethereal flute-led melody which follows it steals the show, and turns the page to the final act of Optica which proves to be its darkest, and most memorable.
The sheer vibe dripping off of ‘Hermila‘ cements it as one of the best songs on the album. Bebban Stenborg lays a soft, cold croon on this eery tale of pursuit and demise. I can’t quite grasp the narrative thread here, but the lack of definition almost makes it creepier. The band has done painful, sad tracks before, but never anything this sinister. Personally, I think it’s fantastic, and worth future pursuit.
Still holding out for some Out Ill Wills-flavored material? ‘Chasing the Sinking Sun’ proves well worth the wait. Excellent percussion through and through, which complements well whatever digital-marimba-filter-type-thing the melody comes out on. Plus I love the refrain,
We were here / that I know
We lost our minds here / long ago
‘Circles’ is the last breather we get before ‘Destroy’, which I consider the complementary song to ‘Hermila’. The flute here is used to a very different effect, a sharp burst of noise in contrast to the distorted cries heard in the background. The song wanders, but in a forlorn, desperate way, that you imagine could be born out of long, dark Swedish winters.
And so, Optica ends not with an exasperated, careless ellipses, nor a definitive exclamation point, but a dissonant question mark. I don’t know what this album means for the future of the Shout Out Louds, but with a much richer pallet of sounds than we’ve seen on anything previous, it’s nothing but encouraging.
I’m done wanting a new Our Ill Wills; that record would probably pale in comparison anyways. The band has something different and fantastic up their sleeves, and even if Optica isn’t quite a triumph of that sound… well, let’s call this the comeback.