In less than a decade, Ought has brought their own brand of originality into the typically one dimensional post-punk scene. The genre had been lacking any real players since the mid 80s and 90s, when New York and English bands like Television, Talking Heads, Gang of Four, and Wire disbanded or fell off. Though the early 2000s saw a brief revival by bands like Interpol, the scene had turned into more of an ingredient over a movement for bands. Ought, a quartet out of Montreal, fully embraced this movement. What set them apart was melding typical post-punk song structures with Avant motifs, scattered rhythms and jagged guitar tones. All of this juxtaposed over singer Tim Darcy’s King Krule-like croons. His French Canadian wails ooze out the side of his lips with David Byrne-esqe charisma.
Up to this point, Ought represented something of an anomaly: a serious band that embraced Avant Garde and augmented melody, while also having the critical and commercial appeal to back it up. On their previous record, Sun Coming Down, the band masterfully tip toed the line between ingenuity and accessibility in a way Avant bands don’t often do. Working with a clear balance of songs that were disruptive, but catchy. Memorable, but challenging. Bands this “out there” don’t normally come along that often, and when they do, they hardly ever are able to find the commercial appeal to continue creating. The risk of these bands is somewhat cliche: overindulge in the eccentricity and risk never reaching a wide enough audience to feed yourself, or focus too much on what fans and labels think and put forward something that isn’t really them. This is a dilemma we all go through, in some form or another.
The album’s cover very much exhibits the themes and moods the album: wide brush strokes of blue, black, grey, and pink streak and swell towards the viewer. It seems as though it’s giving the viewer a glimpse of what’s inside: graceful surges where the band holds you over the clouds, and basins that can bury your afternoon. The arrangement of colors bring to mind the themes of post-punk of old: strokes of beauty housed in grim surroundings.
The album begins with “Into the Sea”, an obtuse and opaque track with wavering piano chords backing Darcy. His lyrics are curious, detailing the album’s cover and (perhaps) the state we’re in:
“I see the stain in the people now
See the stain and I will
Feel the stain in the people now
Deep dark grey fades into blue
Nothing doing how sad who knew
Deep blue turns into grey and
Nothing turning it seems to stay”
This track may be the motif for the album, and direction of the band. Delayed guitars and bleak pianos linger together like a coming storm, before roomy drums sling you to a driving bass line, leaving you on an early eighties Manchester sidewalk.
The second track, “Disgraced in America” is where the band really shines. A animated, wordy track, with a sharp videoto boot, may be the band’s best. Drawing further on the theme of paint, the song drafts the lines of demarcation of present, the ultimate model of tribalism in this country. Written from the perspective of a visiting Canadian traveling America, each line is armed with secondary or tertiary meaning. You can tell the band took some time with the video, strategically flashing the viewer with images of brick, horses, red, blue, black, and yellow. Halfway through, Darcy repeats the opening stanza:
“Birds fly around
While the dividends pay
Birds fly around
While i’m picking up change
And i’m feeling
As the color palette quickly shifts to solely black, the new world colors combine to drench the scene in darkness. Figures are drawn in white, the absence of color, eliciting a warning of how too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. This is art.
“These 3 Things”, the fourth track on the album, is a song of longing and anxiety. The first stanza touches on a concept put forth by Alan Watts and other Taoists: the allegory of consciousness being a river, and the importance of accepting where it’s current brings you. Swimming against the current, or trying to go against where life is bringing you, only causes you to sink. Accepting that this momentum will bring you to the right place, by separating the mind from the body, will help you to float. Watts’ teachings are dense; sometimes fatalistic and depressive, sometimes uplifting and freeing. An ideal allegory for life, and this song.
“These 3 Things” and accompanying video, involve themes of mental health, isolation, sensationalism, dependence on technology, and the monotony of regular life. The concept of the song is an exaggeration of mankind’s reliance on machines to endure the monotony of suburbia. The video seems much like a half cousin of Radiohead’s “No Surprises”. If Thom Yorke taught the bourgeoisie to drown from ennui, Darcy warns of a much more colorless continuance of that tedium. We further escape boredom through technology, swimming against the river with iPhones in hand.
The third and final single off the album, “Desire”, is a bitter reflection of post-breakup love. Starting with blooming synth, the song brings to mind the feeling of butterflies in your stomach, or the bubbling of oxytocin from the pituitary gland. Church organs form behind naked drums and Darcy’s reminiscence, “Desire” is their most thematic work. Its aura transports the listener back to schoolyard anxieties, the seesawing emotions of you and your crush hiding feelings from each other.
Much like the forefathers of post-punk who taught us how to cry on the dance floor, Ought dressed a lyrically dire song in sonic color and beauty. Over the amorous backdrop of a choir, Darcy admonishes the “anti-truth” movement we’re living in, painting us as statues in a lightning storm with clouds overhead. Whomever this past flame was, Darcy chooses to depict them as cutting a new hole in his boot: something he’ll carry with him, the hole exposing him to the cold of an uncertain world.
Review by Robert Lang, edit by Hana King