Montreal quartet Ought’s 2014 debut More Than Any Other Day left the critics impressed. The young band seemed to have emerged fully formed after only two years playing together. The group had a sound – one building off of, and not simply rehashing, post-punk groups like the Talking Heads (compare the cover of Remain in the Light to Ought’s latest) – as well as a thematic through-line that recovered optimism from the mundane details of the day-to-day.
The only question was whether the band would progress, or whether its next record would be a stereotypical “sophomore-slump,” an exhausted rehash of the group’s musical ideas from the debut. Turns out nobody should’ve let that idea vex them. The title of the last track on Ought’s new second album Sun Coming Down (out now via Constellation), “Never Better,” serves both as an ironic tag (the tune is a blistering assault on happiness found in ignorance) and as an apt description of the band right now.
Delivering the new record only fourteen months after the first, the group ratchets up the noise, and guitarist/vocalist/lyricist Tim Darcy doubles down on his favored explorations of various tensions: between hope and cynicism, sincerity and irony, joy and disappointment. There’s not a deviation, but an intensification at play on the new record – one that reifies the band’s strengths.
Listen: “Men For Miles” – Ought
Driving album opener “Men for Miles” sets the tone for the rest of the album both musically and lyrically. The song pulses steadily like classic punk, thanks to bassist Ben Stidsworthy and drummer Tim Keen, but Matt May’s keyboard and Darcy’s unhinged guitar effect a variety of tonal shifts from dissonance to slinky melody almost as drastic as those of Darcy’s voice, which has bits of David Byrne deadpan, Mark E. Smith sneer, and an ability to switch between intonations all his own.
At the heart of the song is a profound vacillation. Darcy asks in the chorus:
What did you see?
What did I see?
There were men for miles,
There were men for miles,
Doesn’t it just bring a tear to your eye?
It’s an expression of pure wonder – of being overwhelmed by humanity. But along with that wonder is an ambivalence. The more Darcy sees, the more he decides:
If I’m being honest
Who would want to live here?
Fourteen clocks and
Half as many rooms
Slip off, slip off, slip off, slip off
And eventually he has to ask, “Excuse me, would you say there’s a chance, of bringing this whole fucker down?” before repeating the chorus. The lyrics dwell in equal measure on awe and discomfort, and Darcy’s refusal to choose a side but to consider all options feels especially pertinent in the 21st century. As he claims on the next track “Passionate Turn,” “I am mobile, I am modern.”
The album’s highlight though is the celestial pairing at its very middle, the songs “Sun’s Coming Down” and “Beautiful Blue Sky.”
The former almost-title-track is a dusky whirlpool of warm fuzz and cold screeches overlaying a simple two chord change. It’s the most musically ambitious song on the record, and is indebted to noisemakers like Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, but remains rooted in the band’s own musical and lyrical sensibilities. Awash in the track’s haze, Darcy drops the sarcasm and lays himself bare confessing, “I am talking out of my ass, Because my heart is not open,” and somberly admits “These things we do, I can’t look them in the eye.”
Listen: “Beautiful Blue Sky” – Ought
If its predecessor is the album’s musical apex, then “Beautiful Blue Sky,” is its lyrical masterstroke. On this track, Darcy finds the perfect balance between ironic jabs at the empty phrases we use daily and a brutally honest, joyful sincerity. He first reels off an uncomfortable list of features of modern consumer life – War-plane, Condo, Oil freighter, New development – before launching into pre-chorus of deadpanned platitudes:
How’s the church? How’s the job? How’s the church? How’s the job?
How’s the family? How’s the family? How’s the family? How’s the family?
Beautiful weather today, beautiful weather today, beautiful weather today
Fancy seeing you here, fancy seeing you here, fancy seeing you here, fancy seeing you here
And then he does a 180 tonally with the chorus:
I’m no longer afraid to die
Cause that is all that I have left
And I’m no longer afraid to dance tonight
Cause that is all that I have left
On the one hand the chorus is a bleak self-assessment. On the other, being honest about death, scorning the hollow words we use to avoid thinking about it, opens up the freedom to dance – to actually enjoy life – “Yes!” Darcy manages to find something hopeful, but it’s hard won from daily drudgery. Not many groups could make this shift in tone between irony and stark sincerity hold together so well as a song, but Ought does it flawlessly.
The same precarious balancing act of sensibilities also characterizes the last three tracks, “Celebration,” “On the Line,” and the afore-described “Never Better.” “Celebration,” as one might guess, undercuts the idea that we have anything to celebrate, and ‘On the Line,” insists that we can move on from our bad habits and destructive impulses but first, Darcy suggests “We’ve got a lot of forgetting to do.” At bottom, Ought knows things aren’t great but thinks they can get better.
Throughout, Sun Coming Down is more experimentally noisy and certainly less buoyantly optimistic than its predecessor. The group’s predilection for holding in suspension wildly different perspectives and sounds may jar listeners new to the band, but it has extremely high payoff with repeated listens. The lyrics and music are truly of piece, and in refusing to keep it simple, Ought keeps it honest. The songs on the new record directly challenge the listener to think through complicated problems for themselves. The band offers no easy answers, and that new maturity might be its most compelling quality.
Watch: “Sun’s Coming Down” – Ought
Ought Fall 2015 Tour
10/10/15 – Amigos Cantina Saskatoon SK
10/12/15 – The Palomino Smokehouse Calgary AB
10/14/15 – Red Gate Vancouver BC
10/15/15 – Sunset Tavern Seattle WA
10/16/15 – Bunk Bar Portland OR
10/17/15 – Treasure Island Music Festival San Francisco CA
10/19/15 – Echo Los Angeles CA
10/20/15 – The Hideout San Diego CA
10/22/15 – Kilby Court Salt Lake City UT
10/23/15 – Larimer Lounge Denver CO
10/25/15 – The Demo St. Louis MO
10/26/15 – Majestic Cafe Detroit MI
10/27/15 – Beat Kitchen Chicago IL
10/29/15 – Legendary Horseshoe Tavern Toronto ON
Tickets available at windishagency.com