The creative freedoms of art-punk make it an incredibly fascinating subgenre of punk rock, able to be highly intellectual, or raw, brooding, and volatile, or, if you’re lucky, a wonderful amalgamation of the two. Montreal band Ought have been the poster boys for the anomalous genre of art-punk since their debut album More Than Any Other Day back in 2014, which mostly had to do with their impressive grasp on the genre – in fact, some say they may have even invented it due to their fearless, cathartic delivery, something that critics still like to relate back to the Quebec student protests that may have had a hand in their creation. Even a year later with the release of sophomore album Sun Coming Down – which sounded lighter and more colorful tonally – the quartet still sound wonderfully earnest in the themes of isolation, alienation, and the constant struggle and frustration with the monotonous minutiae of everyday life, and in Room Inside the World, the group’s most ambitious release to date, they not only elevate those same signature themes, but finally emphasize something that, until now, has been subtly coursing underneath, yet simultaneously coiled like a snake, ready for the right moment to strike – vulnerability.
If you’ve been following us for a while, you’ll know that I’ve been a little (okay, very) biased towards Ought throughout the years, and that’s something that I’d like to expound before going into this album. When you’ve been in the creative sphere for the majority of your life like I have, there are many moments where you stop and think, with the utmost, unwavering conviction, that your words, your work, your creative pursuits, simply do not matter. I was a literature and creative writing major in college and started this blog around the same time, and while I was thrilled to finally be putting my entire being into what I was doing, even in my spare time, the thought that I would never find success with it lingered in my mind. It still lingers, to be honest. It’s frustrating – and even embarrassing at times – to be the one that repeatedly gets caught up in words and emotions to the point of over analyzation, to be the one that cares too much in a world where quick, lucrative thought and productive reason is repeatedly emphasized and rewarded. Bertrand Russell said years ago that “we think too much and feel too little,” and I have honestly never felt that more than today. When I first started listening to Ought, truly listening to the group’s smoldering, improvisational compositions, to Tim Darcy express to me his innermost thoughts and demons in such realized, poetic language despite the assertive manner in which he expelled them vocally, I realized just how important it was for me to continue what I was doing, to make sense of all the noise through varied forms of written word, and to do so as beautifully as one can despite it coming from a hollowed out place of strife.
Frontman Tim Darcy is no stranger to this process, nor is he a stranger to intense sensitivity and the vulnerability that comes along with it; his debut solo album Saturday Night touched on everything from the frustrations of the creative process to toxic masculinity, and in a lot of ways Room Inside the World seems to be a direct extension of those same themes, not to mention the amount of time spent on its creation due to the desire of it being a studio record rather than one that bordered more on being a live album. Sun Coming Down was recorded in two months and More Than Any Other Day was recorded in an unbelievable three days, Room Inside the World took the longest to record by far, at five months. However, that doesn’t mean that this album isn’t as raw and intensely improvisational than the last two – in fact, Darcy mentioned that with this project, they “didn’t want to lose that intensity, but really go deeper and think about craft.” As a result, the songs that appear on the album are patient and more drawn out, less in the way that sacrifices energy or intensity but more in the way in which they manage to appear even more thoughtful and respectful to their own work than ever before, existing as the well-ripened fruits of steady, consistent, collaborative labor.
Something that Ought has brilliantly managed to perfect is the delicate process of evolution as well as introducing it in a gradual manner, and the first three tracks are placed perfectly for a slow submersion into previously uncharted territory marked by varied compositional form. Opener “Into the Sea,” with its National-esque vocal and instrumental pacing, still sounds incredibly distinctive for the quartet the moment you hear Darcy’s frustrated, pained yell into the newfound expanse of echoed guitars and bass delivered by Ben Stidworthy, and the narrative is strangely synonymous with the pressures placed on the band (“these eyes that cling to you/ faked clean and washing through/ they seem to want something new/ fleeting, wanting, holding). “Disgraced in America” begins reminiscent of their Sun Coming Down days, especially with Tim Keen’s frantic drums and Darcy’s yelps (“What a blessing/ what an imitation/ what a blessing/ what an imitation), that is before he suddenly sinks into the melted pool of instrumentals halfway through and transforms his voice into the fluid instrument it always had the potential of being – also managing to make the word “demarcation” sound more sensual and poetic than it ever has, and perhaps ever will. With these two opening tracks they also give us a makeshift thesis statement for the album – that it will ultimately address intellectualism and creative, artistic desires and vulnerable emotions persevering and struggling to survive in a poisoned world stained with judgement and corruption.
One very important thing that you have probably already concluded for yourself – especially if you have been a fan of Ought since the beginning – is that it is near impossible to listen to them if you have an aversion to lyrical narrative. You cannot simply listen to these songs without at least glancing at the liner notes, without the burning desire to know exactly what Darcy is communicating, and they are especially piercing in Room Inside the World. The best tracks are the ones that tap into the frustrations of being soft in a world that rewards being stoic and detached, the ones where Darcy plays both the poet and the prophet.
“These 3 Things” has Darcy addressing the simultaneous passion and dread that comes with being easily susceptible to the fragile, excitable nature of inspiration and the creative process that spurns from it (“See your soul/ feel it sway/ hear the world screaming/ listen, your name”). He voices his frustrations with the process, wondering if he can be genuine (“Will I hear my soul?), but then calms down enough to explain the importance of letting inspiration flow freely, advising us before Tim Keen’s cinematic violin instrumentals “if you’re made of stone/ then turn into clay.” Stunner “Disaffectation” not only introduces the especially evocative 80’s inspiration the boys had this time around, but also solidifies their aggressive intellectual edge by the first mention of the philosophical term that is its namesake – the term suggesting that certain people are “psychologically separated from their emotions, and may have lost the capacity to be in touch with interior psychic reality.” It also brings to mind an affliction that simultaneous intellectuals and creatives may suffer from – the process of being so entranced by the pain and strife they endure and simultaneously actively seek out from other creatives to the point where their intense strength in being empathetic becomes a double edged sword, and soon it becomes harder and harder to escape from the feeling. In “Disaffectation” Darcy explains in a half-crazed, half-impassioned croon that he has “all these strange visions/ come to [him] at night” and he hears “with satisfaction” as they “sing the words [he] likes,” and with them he lays in bed, “high” on the feeling, afterwards bitterly saying that there is medication to get rid of this – “you can get it through the phone.” The anxious slew of bass and drums bounce up and down during these dense verses, providing enough bravado for Darcy to excitedly deliver an brilliant line, one where you can almost hear the satisfied smile that comes with it – “disaffectation is holy/ it makes me feel alive!”
It is “Take Everything,” however, that most directly addresses this frustration of being too soft and too wrapped up in your own passions – those that are insidious in the way that they both bring pleasure as well as pain – as well as the track that houses some of the most beautiful lyrics Darcy has ever written. In a tired, lurching vocal delivery and inbetwixt snarling, growling guitars, he advises us once again that “when the feel of a flower/ keeps you at home for an hour/ throw it away/ there’s a garden there to be deep in.” He looks out for our well-being while perhaps at the same time reminding himself of his own creative flaws. It’s entirely possible to love something too much to the point of remaining inside yourself and showing utter disrespect to the object or concept you are admiring – it is instead what results from that love, what is created as an extension of that love that should be rewarded.
Speaking of love, slow-burner “Desire” might be the most sensual song Ought has ever released, as well as the most self-aware. Beginning with dreamy flutters of synth and subtle distortion, we hear the most deliberate, softest vocal delivery from Darcy pour in before he resorts back to his signature, deep-throated drawl, delivering a narrative of equal parts romance and vitriol. He expounds a relationship that has long since deteriorated, repeating that “it was never gonna stay: throughout the track, and yet compares his love to a “moon in a basket of weeds,” remembers the “feel of [their] honey in the corner of [his] mouth.” Darcy, hurt but not broken implied by the immense inhumanity of this nameless person, “won’t accept the conceit any further,” promises to return it “in a fervor,” and like clockwork in comes the seventy piece choir that elevates his argument into the stratosphere.
Regardless of my own personal bias, Ought nevertheless remains as one of the most innovative, passionate, and intellectual bands currently working today, and it is simply because they prove that the written and spoken word, even in its most polarizing poetic and lyrical forms, still has meaning, importance, power. And now with Room Inside the World, they are more than willing to express the importance of drawing out as well as praising the feeling of vulnerability amidst a world of stoicism, indifference, and anger, expressing the sheer validity of the messier, more esoteric parts of the human condition when it is far easier to ignore them completely. The fact that they have again managed to tap deep into the inner workings of my soul – a place that I thought was impenetrable compared to my far more permeable heart – with those thoughts that I have had throughout my life as a writer but, ironically, could never put into words, is more than enough to make Room Inside the World among the few true works of art that I personally will not only consider a unarguable masterpiece, but one that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
photo courtesy of artist/ merge records