An electric blend of rap, rock and political fury, Grandson’s breakthrough single Blood//Water was always going to see him championed as the millennial Rage Against The Machine. Stepping up to the plate, the American-Canadian songwriter spent the next few years tackling gun control, addiction, and mental health with his eclectic trilogy of A Modern Tragedy EPs, while his live shows were driven by the optimistic promise of change. Grandson – real name Jordan Benjamin – quickly became a beacon of hope to his fans, the Grandkids.
But after living through Brexit, the rise of the alt-right and a presidential election where Trump got the second highest number of votes in American history, even he has his doubts. “You can’t help but question it: am I the one that’s looking at things wrong?” he tells Louder over Zoom. “There’s been an unprecedented rise in the amount of young people that are informed and ready to do the work, but the systems that keep us apart and motivate us through fear are only getting more efficient. Each of us has to decide where we stand on being apathetic about the future, or finding hope for it.”
It’s why his ambitious, theatrical debut album Death Of An Optimist has more in common with Green Day’s American Idiot, Twenty One Pilot’s blurryface or My Chemical Romance’s Danger Days than ‘fuck you I won’t do what you tell me’ protest anthems. “As a generation, we are struggling with the desire for profound systemic change, our need for instant gratification and the confusion around what that change would look like,” he tells us. In short, telling an angry, downtrodden generation to simply take the power back isn’t going to cut it.
Creating ‘X’, an alter ego for Grandson’s more cynical side, the album places his struggle with the philosophical question of “if you dedicate your life to making change, and that change doesn’t happen the way you hoped it would, did your life have any meaning?” at its heart. As a result, Death Of An Optimist is as honest as a political album can be in 2020. “I knew it was ambitious but I would rather fail at something that I believe in than do something that sits in the middle,” he says.
The energetic In Over My Head sees Benjamin “pretty sure at 26, that there isn’t going to be some little fix” while the industrial grunge of We Did It!!! knows “the rich get rich and the sick get sicker”. Elsewhere the pop-tastic Dirty ignores the hypocrisy of the other side and asks for empathy and commitment. “If you were going to go march in the street and post #BlackLivesMatter then you also have to give a shit about who you elect to be the district attorney and hold cops accountable when they are racist,” he tells us.
While Grandson has always wanted to give people a sense of power over their own lives, he’s not interested in sugarcoating how difficult that might be. “The album deals in the paralysing anxiety between wanting to be all in but trying to be realistic with the chance that change might not look the way you want it to.”
It might sound doom and gloom, but hasn’t everything lately? Yeah, Benjamin might have doubted the revolutionary power of music but he hasn’t given up. “I don’t do a very good job of throwing up my hands and going ‘fuck it’”. On Death Of An Optimist he “wants people to leave with a sense that regardless of the outcome, you do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.”
Wanting to make an album where he didn’t have to continue to choose between writing songs that provide social commentary and more introspective, mental health orientated ones, Grandson says he tackled “finding optimism, because that’s the thread that connects those two worlds. You’re only willing to do the work to change yourself if you have the belief and the imagination that you deserve better.” Whether that’s escaping a toxic relationship, breaking an addiction, tackling climate change or fighting against the global rise of fascism, “if you don’t have that hope, then it’s really hard to find a reason to give a shit about much of anything.
“We have to believe that there is a better way of doing things, that’s still worth fighting for.”
Drop Dead, the last proper track on the album, freely admits that sometimes the bad guy wins, but Benjamin knew he couldn’t finish Death Of An Optimist with yet more cynicism. There’s enough of that going around. “I’m a pothead, I’m a sinner. Life ain’t fair, go figure,” he sings, doing his bit to demystify the art of giving a shit. “Don’t let go, don’t give up that easy” he continues, offering encouragement over glitching guitars.
The song sees Grandson promising that “no matter what, I’ll still be with you, doing this thing, so don’t give up. I know that that kind of message can go a long way. If I just get out of my own self-sabotaging, self-deprecating mindset and just recommit to being whatever I can for these kids, this work is worthwhile. Maybe it’s corny but during this really weird, confusing time, I know I was putting out music and trying to be there for others. I know that that matters.”
Despite being inspired by the political and personal horrors of the past few years, Death Of An Optimist is the soundtrack for what comes next. “This album will only be more relevant as we navigate the light at the end of the tunnel for this weird, confusing time. The transition to a new administration in America sets up a healthy positive precedent that the times are changing, but we’ll see,” says Benjamin, not wanting to get carried away. “People always joke about what I’m going to do when Donald Trump is out of office but he’s not out yet, is he?”
Even then, that’s just the start. “The old way of doing things isn’t going to go down without a fight,” says Benjamin. Maybe not, but they’re going to wish it really was the death of an optimist.