Album Review: Inner Demons Come Out To Play In Stephen James’ “Optimum“
To read Us For Once's exclusive interview with Stephen James, click here, or alternatively, follow the link at the bottom of this article!
When music artists and bands start letting their music take them where it wants to go, thus leaving the tight bounds of genre behind, we often stumble upon underrated gems. One of those gems is the recent album by the band Stephen James, entitled Optimum. The album is the story of one's journey through the trials of life and finding the beauty in that life, no matter how dark. It reinvents the idea of finding the light at the end of the tunnel and does so in a beautiful, artistic way.
Stephen James’s creative output is rooted in the band’s unlikely beginnings. Hailing from Milwaukee, but currently based in Chicago, the band is comprised of three longtime friends. Songwriter/vocalist/guitar player Stephen James, drummer Zach Meyer, and bassist/guitarist Josh Trimble. Enamored with music from a young age, frontman Stephen James tapped into his desire to create at age fourteen, when he teamed up with best friend Zach Meyer to produce their debut EP, Eyelids. Time and distance between the duo then culminated into their first full length album, 2015’s Roman Buildings, and the addition of Josh Trimble to the lineup. Their latest LP, Optimum, was just released in December 2017, and it’s a testament to their evolution as artists. This album features a merging of classic genres, complex chord progressions, a unique vocal style, and lyrics that tell a story that sounds dreamy and melodic, but is truly down to earth and at its core, unmistakably human.
On Optimum, James provides us with consistently strong and intriguing vocals built on Meyer and Trimble’s musical foundations. They tell their story with the album split in two by a track serving as the intermission. The first half is darker, portraying unhealthy ways of living for the narrator. Lyrics about sadness, loneliness, and aching are set to entrancing melodies and chords before things lighten up in the second half.
The album begins with a song called "Scratched Up Windows" which plays as the bands lead single off the album. It gives us a good taste of what is to come by mixing drive-with-the-windows-down music with mellow, calming vocals over top. The tempo changes within the song are goosebump-inducing, making the listener anticipate what is to come next. With this being the opening song on the album, Stephen James leaves you with no desire for turning back.
Things don't slow down with the next two songs, entitled "Vice" and "Where The Grass Grows Greener." In "Vice" things start out ominous and low-key after an attention-grabbing opening. Suddenly, the background includes more upbeat tones but keeps it's darker lyrics. "Where The Grass Grows Greener" is arguably the most relatable song on the album. The lyrics are somewhat self-deprecating, yet set over a beat you just can't help but nod your head to. A contrast such as this one is something difficult to accomplish, but Stephen James was able to execute it gracefully. In the fourth track, "Nightlight," we get a surprising twist such as quickly sung lyrics against a comforting guitar. It is a unique touch the band takes full advantage of, yet does not overuse.
Now we get to the intermission. There is no hiding this track's intent. It gets to the point and portrays its message beautifully to its audience of listeners. Starting out slowly, it lets us know we are moving out of the dark and into the part of life when we come to terms with our past actions and behaviors. As the music picks up and becomes bolder, acceptance and recovery are on the horizon.
"Vanishing Act" is the perfect way to kickstart the second half of the album. It is a welcoming, upbeat tune with fun vocal editing. The lyrics about running from your demons are sure to make listeners feel motivates and reassured. To follow this track, "Monsters" slows the album down again, but this time, less solemnly. It is a calm tune where the narrator realizes they've been a monster in the past and are finally willing to work on that in order to settle down. The next two songs are feel-good songs. The vocalist comes in strong on "Bel Aire Drive," a song of pure nostalgia. There is no feeling stronger than wishing to have the safety of being a kid again. "Tremble" is a surprisingly soft song, but it's packing a punch. With an insane rift, this track can not just be overlooked.
Finally, we get to the last track on this album. Entitled "Optimum," this eight-minute ballad is the perfect conclusion to the story. The length of the song is just right in order to include parts from each step on the journey and all the best aspects of each song, as well. There are tempo changes, fast lyrics, strong vocals, incredible rifts, and mellow and upbeat sounds alike. This song is about realizing that it is both the bad parts and the good parts that made this masterpiece come to life. You are able to become your best self not by just creating your perfect image but also accepting those dark days from the past. After listening to the album as a whole, this song feels so comforting and reassuring that it will most likely become your favorite track after the first listen. Ending with the spoken word of a beautiful poem against a soft guitar, "Optimum" leaves you with the same goosebumps you got during that first song.
This album portrays one person's journey of trying to figure out this confusing life. It is raw and honest, letting you get into the narrator's mind for the duration of the album. You can label this band and this record as many different genres but regardless, you can find something you like here, especially with those all too real lyrics. Whether you’re a shuffler or a listener from beginning to end, this is one album you’ll always want to listen to straight through from track 1 to track 10. It is this that makes us love music so much. The ability to relate and to feel validated and understood. This is more than an album. It is a story.
To hear more about Stephen James' story, check out our exclusive interview with them!
Stephen James is currently about to set off on their first tour, featuring select US cities! A complete list of dates and links to purchase tickets can be found on their website. If you would like to learn more or connect with the band, they can also be found on Facebook and Instagram!