grandson – ‘Death of an Optimist’

By Yasmin Brown

If you’ve been paying any attention to grandson over the past two and a half years, you’ll be well aware that he’s not here to make friends. He’s here to make a difference and doesn’t care who he upsets on the way to his goal. With a three-part collection of EPs under his belt, aptly titled ‘modern tragedy’, grandson (aka Jordan Benjamin) has cemented his position on a number of political and social issues through angry prose and furious rap-rock music. The overt and explicit nature of his music leaves no room for misinterpretation and finally, with an entire album now acting as his platform, grandson can spread his message without the limitation of time or upper track limit.

Enter, ‘Death of an Optimist’.

Each of these 12 tracks buy into the idea of losing hope – a battle between continuing to fight, and giving up because frankly, what’s the point when nothing ever changes? The album’s intro sets this scene perfectly though a raucous and manic build up, telling the story of a man who has gone from being so boisterous in his enthusiasm to losing all sense of optimism that progress is possible. 

This intro jerks roughly into the rest of the record with no real transition, reflective of the journey you’re about to take through grandson’s mind. His deepest concerns and frustrations will be served on a platter for you to delve into at your leisure, and you’ll easily find yourself empathising with many of the topics that are addressed throughout the record – either on a personal or wider level. It’s a record that’s as timely as they come, with many of the tracks broaching the current pandemic, the American political system, and the effects of each. 

Most poignantly, though, is grandson’s personal battle between his two egos. The first is G – the righteous man who believes he can and should make a change – the second is X, a cynic who doesn’t believe change can be made and, even worse, doesn’t necessarily always want to make that change. These two identities are alluded to throughout, but come to head in the interlude titled ‘The Ballad of G and X’, where grandson explicitly details the conflict between the two, giving you just a slither of insight into the daily struggle Benjamin faces within himself. 

The first introduction to X, however, comes in the form of the pugnacious ‘Identity’. It’s relatable on a number of levels, whether it’s combatting the uncertainty of who you really are, or just the outright frustration that comes with widespread denial of socio-political issues, the politicisation of the Covid virus, or the lack of representation of minorities. This loaded song is, lyrically, dripping with fury, fuelled further by the angry electric guitar that has your hair standing on end throughout, ensuring that you feel riled up and ready to take on the rest of the record, and indeed, the world.

As the album’s title might suggest, there’s very little positivity to be found in any of these tracks, but none is so bleak as ‘Left Behind’, the very nature of which is lacking hope and drowning in negativity despite being delivered in a major key. This track sees X take over through words such as, “I’m feeling like I don’t have a reason to believe in”, depicting thoughts and concerns as to whether he can make a change in such a fast-paced world, where issues only stick around in the headlines and the hashtags for a short time before people tend to move on. 

In direct contrast, ‘Dirty’, while still somewhat cynical, is a direct call to arms, filled with a motivating power that makes you believe you can, in fact, make a difference. Initially released just before the US election, grandson asks, “Do you have enough love in your heart to go and get your hands dirty?” during the stunning brass-driven choruses, an incendiary yet impactful piece that will have you questioning whether you’re living safely, or going against the grain to stand up for what you believe in. 

Given its commentary on the US government, ‘Dirty’ lends itself perfectly to the wonderfully satirical and ironically delightful ‘We Did It!!’ – a track that takes everything we know about the arrogance of Trump’s presidency and turns it into a mockery that many view it to be. Lines such as “I’m gonna pat myself on the back because I did the bare minimum” highlight just how angry grandson is about the past four years, as well as commenting on the disparity between rich and poor when it comes to the Covid mortality rate. If it wasn’t so real and so current, this track could almost be funny – but you only have to look at the number of Covid related deaths in the US to realise that this is not a joke.

As we steam through the rap-driven ‘WWIII’ and into the Mike Shinoda collaboration ‘Riptide’, we start to reach a more personal part of the album as grandson addresses his ongoing battle with addiction – another part of him fuelled by X where he begs someone to “save me from myself”. The desperation is devastating and you can only wonder if grandson’s empathy and insistence on taking on the weight of the world isn’t his worst downfall when it comes to his interpersonal relationships – including that with himself.

It’s a concern that’s only exacerbated by ‘Pain Shopping’ as he expresses his desire to feel anything at all, even if it’s negative, through the line, “looking for the proof that I’m still alive”. It’s a particularly interesting track when viewed in juxtaposition with some of the earlier tracks, as you struggle to see how an empath with so much second-hand frustration and anger for the world around him could possibly ever feel nothing, but there’s a yearning here matching that in ‘Riptide’, which suggests all the love he feels for those he doesn’t know leave him with very little for himself.

Seemingly aware that he runs the risk of leaving listeners feeling totally disheartened, the tone changes slightly with acoustic ‘Drop Dead’. Despite the misleading name, this track sees grandson accepting who he is and seeing the brighter side as he’d “rather drop dead than be a quitter”. It sees all the uncertainty fall away and finally you find yourself being motivated by something other than anger – a belief that things can be better.

With this in mind, the album’s outro, ‘Welcome to Paradise’, could be seen as either hopeful or hopeless, depending whose lens you choose to view it through. To G, this beautifully depicted ‘paradise’ may be a real possibility – a future existence that’s better, brighter and more embracing for all. X, on the other hand, may consider it an unattainable pipe dream. It’s up to you what you choose to believe.

It would be easy to find yourself getting wrapped up in the negativity that envelops much of this album, but it would be far more productive to use it as a catalyst for change. grandson’s brutally honest commentary on this world and on his own life is difficult to swallow at times, but it’s only shouting this loud and being this candid that will get people to listen. Here’s to hoping he never finds himself silenced.

YASMIN BROWN

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