Did the mountain climber climb to the top, or were they born there?
We've all seen inspirational posters: You pair a breathtaking photo with some inane platitude, put the whole thing in a frame, and hang it in a corporate setting. The photos range from breaking waves to hot air balloons to, yes, mountain climbers on dramatic peaks. Yet the platitudes are so vague and the achievements so unattainable (who among us has the time, death wish, or disposable income to climb Denali or K2?) that there's nothing useful to be gleaned.
Indeed, this is what many people evidently think optimism is. It seems disingenuous, distant, and unrealistic, like the emotional equivalent of some vapid inspirational poster. The optimistic mountain climber is that way because he or she was born at the top. If they'd had to work, pull, and climb the whole way, they wouldn't be so naively positive.
On second LP In Our Time, Canadian singer-songwriter AHI argues the case for real-world optimism. There are no platitudes or mountaintops – rather, AHI sings about the same shit luck and hard times all of us slog through. He simply chooses resilience over despair, and he does so without intellectual or emotional compromise. Indeed, this is optimism as it exists in the real world.
“I’ve been told I’m worthless/so much that it gave me purpose/and I took the creative license/to believe that it means I’m priceless,” AHI sings over reverent organ tones on album opener “Breakin’ Ground.” Soon the song adopts a folk-rock bounce and AHI considers his life: he’s not really anyone, he admits, and he was born without means, but most days he’s at peace with that. As he sings in the chorus, positivity isn’t a steady state, but something that takes effort and conscious thought. “I know I’m going to make it out/because I’m already breaking ground,” he declares in a voice that’s both gravelly and reassuring.
While AHI looks on the bright side, he admits to the clouds in the sky as well. On title track “In Our Time,” he grapples with the global uptick in fascism and populism, as well as his own ensuing cynicism. “We were skeptical at first, but it’s hard not to agree/because once in a lifetime history repeats/if this is the dawning of a new world, I don’t know/just don’t you dare ask what I think the future holds,” he simmers on this anxious, downtrodden cut. “All the elders said there was nothing left to fight/but it never crossed my mind they couldn’t be right.” AHI being AHI, there’s optimism even in “In Our Time,” but it’s practical and realistic: “We’ll make it to the horizon/so pray for the best/And if it happens in our time/we’ll be the last ones left.”
Elsewhere on In Our Time, AHI echoes the directness and simplicity of the White Stripes’ “We’re Going to Be Friends” on “Five Butterflies” and offers a desolate contemplation of parental alcoholism and abuse on “Just Pray.” If there is a thesis to this wide-ranging album, however, it’s on the soaring “We Want Enough.” AHI takes on runaway capitalism and the excessive material junk and social stratification that are structural to it, crafting an ode to cooperation and sustainability that hearkens as much to the Occupy movement as to any musician. “You can’t stop us now/because we’re products of/what you’ve begun,” he sings, crafting both a manifesto and an optimistic creed. “No, we ain’t asking much/we don’t want it all/we just want enough/we want enough.”
Indeed, this is true-to-life positivity. There are no mountaintops, no hot air balloons: just the same world everyone grubs through, only viewed through a lens of resilience and positivity.