Grandson’s Death of an Optimist: A Politically Charged Debut Album for Gen Z


“Death of a Optimist” poster

Cassie Waltmire and Cassie Waltmire

“Death of an Optimist” by Grandson (Jordan Benjamin), was released on December 4, 2020. The debut album comes after three EPs, The Modern Tragedy Trilogy. Grandson is no stranger to political topics and speaking out against the Trump Administration, so it was no surprise that this would carry over into the storyline for “Death of an Optimist.”

The album starts with the self-titled track, “Death of an Optimist // Intro”, and the click of tape recorder. This first track sets up the storyline for the rest of the album. Grandson debates whether it’s all worth it and declares the death of an optimist at the end of the track. This introduces the pessimist alter-ego, X, who is a recurring character throughout the album.

The story continues in “In Over my Head,” where Grandson talks about “sick of being an optimist,” and believe that good always wins. He explores the optimism of being a child, assuming the bad guy always loses, and how that disintegrates the older he gets. Grandson told Apple Music that “I do have that big dream that I can do anything, so I wanted to start the album on that note.” 

In “Identity” Grandson explores the alter-ego X further. X starts to take a bit more control on this track. The tones are darker, and it feels more pessimistic than the two previous tracks. He explores whether he is actually an optimist or if he’s something much more negative. He talks about tons of current issues in this song, mentioning mass detention, the pandemic and more. With everything going on in the world, he questions where his identity lies. Is he an optimist or are the darker events clouding his judgement?

“Left Behind” might be the entire thesis of the album, according to Grandson. The optimist returns for a brief moment in this song. He sings “I wanna lead a generation, but the train’s about to leave the station / I don’t wanna move on but I don’t wanna get left behind,” talking about wanting to fight for everything that’s wrong, but not being prepared enough. He speaks about the youth being ready to take on the world, but those ideals not reaching the people in power. It tells listeners that it’s okay to be scared. That you can advocate for what you believe is right, but also question whether you’ll actually see change.

“Dirty” is on the rise right now, reaching  on the Alternative charts just a few days ago. The song was originally released for National Voter Registration Day. The chorus questions whether the listener is really willing to help someone in need, “Do you have enough love in your heart to go and get your hands dirty?” The song is one big call to action, telling everyone to go out and do what they believe is right. With the song being released in conjunction with National Voter Registration Day, it can be assumed that the main action being pushed is to register to vote, and actually vote. The music video is full of scenes in front of a wall spray-painted with the word “VOTE”. 

The next track is an interlude but is far from a break for the album. “The Ballad of G and X // Interlude” is a slower song but digs deep into the relationship between the optimist (Grandson) and the pessimist (X). X gets fully fleshed out in this song, “I wanna be the change, I try to make my feelings vocal / He’s in my head, he makes me sick, he makes me antisocial.” There’s a constant struggle between the two. The optimist wants to believe that there’s good, that an individual can make an impact on the world. But X comes in and tells him he’s wrong. 

X seems to have a more prominent role in the rest of the album, starting with “We Did It!!!” The chorus chants “We Did it!” and is quickly followed with “We didn’t.” The theme follows the pessimist, “What if all this work we’ve put into shaping a better world is for nothing? What if the will of the people can’t bend the sheer force of the few?”, Grandson commented on YouTube. With every win that seems to come, the next step is always something larger and harder to accomplish. It makes change seem impossible, which is why the track digs into the darker side of things.

“WWIII” quickly became a fan-favorite when the album dropped. He writes from the perspective of a scared and confused young adult sent off to a foreign country to fight a war. He compares live combat to video games and explores PTSD and survivor’s guilt. There are many themes quickly presented through the song. Grandson told Apple Music about the track: “But it’s playing out in a scenario where there’s so much to lose, and so much consequence—not just for those who are lucky enough to come home and then have a lifetime of pain and confusion, but for the very communities where these wars are being fought in.” 

“Riptide” was the second single from the album. It explores the feeling of being stuck in a riptide, as the name suggests. When you get stuck in a pattern that you’ve been doing for so long, it feels impossible to get out. The song also explores getting high as a coping mechanism for mental health issues, saying, “I get high to leave all these problems on the ground / Then to my surprise, they’re right there when I come back down.” Even trying to break a habit such as this, would leave someone feeling stuck in a riptide. He mentions that bad habits die slow, again suggesting that trying to break the habit is like trying to break from a riptide. Grandson told Apple Music about these themes, saying, “It was the first of this new era written, and while it addresses the pain of regret, the places we go to avoid confrontation, I’m proud to tell my story and hope that someone that hears it will find the strength to tell theirs.”

Tying in with the previous song and mental health problems, “Pain Shopping” talks about the drug industry. “Half of us on a prescription,” he sings. The most common way to treat mental health problems, specifically depression, is prescription drugs. “Depression on sale for a limited time,” he says. He talks about feeling nothing while on the drugs and searching for a way to feel happy again. A lot of people are told that all you have to do is take this prescription and it will fix all of your problems. Grandson tells his story, and how that’s not true, on this track.

“Drop Dead” seems to be the return of the optimist, at least for a little bit. “I’d rather drop dead than be a quitter,” he says multiple times in the chorus. After going through all of the drama with X, it seems that the optimist has realized he would rather keep fighting for what he believes than quit. 

The final track, “Welcome to Paradise // Outro” presents a few different ideas. Grandson stated: “There’s this quiet kind of uncertainty: Okay, you’ve gone on this journey with me, I’ve presented you with as compelling a reason I can to stand up for what you believe in, and I’ve also somehow simultaneously painted as real a reason that all of it will be for nothing, so where do we go from here? I think ‘Welcome to Paradise’ is kind of stepping out into this new landscape.” It is up to the listener from here to decide whether they believe in fighting further for what could be a false future or give into X and see it all as meaningless. It almost seems as if the song is telling you it’s okay to ignore the problems for a minute. If you close this imaginary door, you can be at peace. You can see paradise and relax. But only if you are willing to stop fighting. After all, ignorance is bliss, right?

Personally, I’ve had “Death of an Optimist” on repeat since it came out and haven’t been slowing down. My favorites are “Identity” and “We Did It!!!” because of their harder influences and meaningful messages. If you’re a fan of the new style alternative music, make sure you check out Grandson and his debut album. You’ll also want to listen top to bottom the first couple times. After that, it works for all occasions.