The Last Optimist [?], 'Seed Water Sun' (Review)

The Last Optimist [?], 'Seed Water Sun' (Review)

Markus Belanger's the last optimist [?] is a musical project designed to help manage mental health. On EP and now two albums in, his music has been tagged as"sad folk". Rather than treat this as bad branding, the singer-songwriter has leaned into it. For instance, when Belanger talks about the origins of the name: 

"I chose the name ‘the last optimist’ in a very dark period in our human history and we now together face the unfathomable realities of global pandemic, war and genocide, school shootings, and unreconciled political insurrection. It is too much to bear for any one of us. I feel the duty to bring a counterweight to so much sadness and pessimism. I feel the responsibility to remind us that humans are decent and caring and kind – especially in the face of extreme adversity." - For Folk's Sake

I'm reminded of the film Last Words, a post apocalyptic film with the most bleak ending you'll ever encounter, literally leaving, the last optimist. This endeavor has to be exhausting for one person to take on. Which makes me curious about how an artist shifts gears to the goal. Here, I will try to give a breakdown of each track to figure that out. 

The Last Optimist, 'Seed Water Sun'


The album opens up with the ethereal "Not A Sound". The plucking of the guitar drifts into the first verse, with Markus Belanger's Death n June-like vocals. In fact, it already has that neo-folk feel even before he starts to sing. "Silence, silence, he's drifting down the to kiss the crown," then the arrangement swells most epic and heavenly when Danielle Pinal takes the second verse at 1:10. "Snowflakes, snowflakes, first they're dancing down, they call their friends to play." 

The "sad folk" tag that I mentioned is easy to understand with my previous Douglas Pierce reference. Death In June is considered more goth and dark wave. Perhaps some of the bleakest stuff out there, all of which is subjective, of course. The lyrics I quoted isn't in any way alluding to something nefarious. I see it more and the rhythm of nature at play. 

In general, it's admiring the seasons as they come with the constant reminder that these change despite how hard we try to hold onto them. One can apply sadness to that, but that too is short-lived, distracted by admiration of a new season as it enters. 

"I forgot again that this will change. A moment now is gone. Whether held too tight or too much to bear. A moment now is gone."


"Only Two Ways Out"


This track is a different kind of observation, for me, it picks up a bit more with a pop-a-billy approach. The percussion is softer and for that, it's surprising. This when I first get a sense of the control Markus has of what he wants the signature sound of the last optimist [?] to be. With the organ in the backdrop, the sad folk labeling continues to make sense aesthetically. This has a Leonard Cohen or even Nick Cave quality to it. Lyrically, this is more of a protest song, and it brings Anders' and O'Bitz's Answers Belie, to mind has similar songs about our politics. Being trapped in our homes during the pandemic, throwing our TVs down the stairs, bringing people together despite the politics and how we're all somewhat held hostage. If we could stand up against the propaganda, we could start rebuilding ourselves and our country stone by stone. What I do enjoy about this message is that Belanger acknowledges that there is an enemy. I myself can't imagine taking the high road against a Karen or a Ken. 

"Bloom Now Sweet Flower"


The medieval aesthetics of "Bloom Now Sweet Flower" is more on the nose of my expectations of Belanger's sound and style, which I realize right before it takes a different form. This album's gentleness is consistent, which makes this music unique. I've made different musical references, but this is methodically different. Danielle rejoins Markus for this one, though more in the background than before.

A gardener pays attention to their garden, through their maintenance it's like caring for children. Belanger throws a lot of sentiment behind the blooming of a flower from a seed. It makes more sense when he parallels it with the birth and the raising of a child. This one could make one emotional, and I wonder at some point in this recording if he's getting emotional too.

I thought about leaving these comparisons with the artist's commentary from their site until the end but, in looking up the source, I'm patting myself on the back that my interpretation is spot on with his intentions.  

"Shame You Left Me"

Let me refer to earlier when I said that Belanger acknowledges that there is an enemy. I've been waiting for this artist to break away from the nice moments and this is where I hear the menace in the gentleness, and I'm wondering what kind of rage boils within. Markus' involvement in, Stricken For Catherine, was a collaborative effort. 


It was emo, punk, art rock where the settling of scores might be harder to reveal. Since then and through various projects, there hasn't been a moment for him to express this as a solo artist. 

There is trauma expressed through this entire song. There's resentment during some more fragile moments in our life. A funeral where the anger is directed towards the dead? The main character knows this isn't the time or place to feel this way and at so young an age.

The music is appropriately somber for this story. The changes with the arrangement throughout provide more color for the lyrics, making this more complex. All of it works, and especially so when the track builds momentum towards the end, for more dramatic flair. 

The electric guitars create atmosphere and when they rock out, it's very Alice in Chains, or Soundgarden, or Pearl Jam. I'm not dating myself here. Make a more current artist suggestion, I'll go to BRMC if you want. Doves? 


Markus admits that this is a difficult song which talks about sexual abuse and as a victim, he needed to bring it to the table. Again, this project and these albums are about empathy and to help those who are troubled, help to go through difficult times. It's not just about politics or being an observer of nature. 

"Hermit In The Maples"


This track breaks away from the traditional form we've heard in this album so far of verse chorus verse. This is more of a story set to music. While I go through the lyrics, I visualize a homeless hermit, who dwells on a woman from his past. He holds a sweater, remembers various details that aren't there to be shared anymore. Living a harder life. I needed help to translate this and on his site, Belanger explains: 

"Sometimes stories just arrive and want to be told. This hermit is looking back at a life well spent, at a love well loved, and a war left behind. There is no loneliness here, just abundance of well-earned experience mixed together with the transcendent consolation of nature." 

As we can see, I read exactly what was there, and it isn't so autobiographical as I might have expected. We see that the dwelling of the past isn't as depressing as all that. It's a life well-earned. I'm just a little pissed that this dumb hermit didn't take the movie offer!

"One Night In Belfast"

 One thing about Markus' musical style is that he can slide in perfectly with European folk. Sure, there's the Ani DeFranco, FUGAZI influences but now, we're seeing some Pogues influences here too.  This one has a more festive folk sound to it. More importantly, this track documents a time in Markus' life when he was in Belfast in the 90s. 

In the early '00s, I would frequent some Irish style pubs where we would do Car bombs and Black and Tans without thinking about it. Belanger made the mistake of ordering one of these at a pub and ended up nearly getting thrown out for it. All of this happening due to flight delays. 

Weeks before the peace accord would happen, he would become educated on the conflict there as he was getting ready to propose to his now wife, I would guess? 

And at this point, the shifting of gears that I talked about is fascinating to me. It's his own recollection of observations, autobiographical political moments that are both familiar and unfamiliar. Life-changing events and experiences. 

There's no doubt that this artist was entirely immersed with the creation of this album. An artist will often come to a point in their creation where they feel their well of ideas is dry. That's clearly not happening here. Belanger has a lifetime to draw from. The brightness continues to shine throughout this album.


"Love Is Like A Smile"


 Is this the sequel to "One Night In Belfast"? He's got a ring in his pocket but in this one, they've been together for long enough to know each other. They've gotten into fights that only love can bring. Then it just takes a smile for things to be right again. A singer-songwriter can get cringy when they try to write a conventional love song. There would have to be an intervention to sit them down and tell them, it's bad. That's because they don't know it. But Markus is a poet-who-know-it and succeeds with this one. 

He goes for the standard format of comparing natural things to love but in such a way that even if you were to blush at the subject itself, the music is powerful enough to take you through. There's also the question we ask ourselves when we're in love. How the hell did this happen when I was so used to being alone? Now, I can't be without you. In reading his commentary for this song, he confirms the darkness he tends to dwell on. He was in fact challenged by his friends to write a love song and naturally, he started writing it as a joke. You see how it turned out. Hell, even I wanna marry the guy!

"A Thousand Clover Leaves"

Belanger wrote this with his sister, but he did it as a poet would, in a boat on a lake. Clearly, that says a lot about his work ethic. The arrangement for this song is also unique in its melody. If this were just him and a guitar, it would be fine, but the addition of other instruments to fill it out also works. He says that he left the protagonist out of it this time. which is a good of a change as any to keep the listener guessing. 

"On Monkton Ridge"

I left out the images on both of these for two reasons. The first image for "A Thousand Clover Leaves" wasn't playing well with the text and for this one because it's more personal and can be found on Belanger's site. This one is beautiful and powerful and everything you would want to close an album like this. The way he blends the melody to this song with military taps is what makes it most powerful with the message of forgiveness.

Go to the site for the lyrics and its meaning but I will say that in paying attention to the shifting of gears through this album, I feel like I've lived a life. It makes good use of the goal to help us through the challenges of our lives, our culture, our politics. All of that is done in ways that seem to have even surprised Markus. Overall, Seed Water Sun is an important album from an artist who's making his best work when we need it most.   

Official Site
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