Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Ought Sun Coming Down

There’s an overwhelming, all-pervading anxiety to Ought, the young Montreal band, that goes beyond the band’s actual music. This is a band born of anxiety. Its four members — three from different parts of the U.S., one from Australia — came together a few years ago, when they were all studying at McGill University and all taking part in a movement to protest against tuition hikes. So: Four kids, basically, probably not sure what they’re going to do with their lives once they leave this bubble of an institution, and just as unsure how they’ll pay down the debt that they’re currently racking up. That’s not exactly an uncommon state of being — chances are good that you’ve experienced it, or that you’re experiencing it now — but thinking about it is enough to tighten up your stomach muscles. And while the band’s lyrics are elliptical enough that I don’t think they spend any of Sun Coming Down, their deeply impressive second album, speaking directly about that state, the tension still seeps through into every aspect of the music. When the band gets going, frontman Tim Darcy’s guitars become a frantic bilious ball of energy, an erratic needle of treble. And the guitar isn’t the only source of discordance; sometimes, it seems to be locked into a furious, urgent non-verbal conversation with Matt May’s keyboards and Tim Keen’s violin, each of them freaking out in some private-but-communal way while the band’s locked-in rhythm section pushes everything relentlessly forward. Play this music loud enough, and it can have an almost physical effect, making jaws clench and tendons go taut.

That stress-ball intensity was also there on the band’s debut, last year’s More Than Any Other Day. But Sun Coming Down builds on that feeling, showing us a band refining its attack in ways that bands ideally should do on their sophomore albums. Sun Coming Down isn’t some great leap beyond the last album — an album that, after all, is still less than a year and a half old. But it’s sharper and more focused, and also grander and more expansive. On the longer songs, you can feel the members of the band stretching out and testing each other. Ought recorded the album live to tape, and this is the sort of band where that technique is totally necessary. These instruments can’t be recorded in isolation; they need to be interacting with each other, bouncing off of each other. Ought are capable of great beauty, especially when that rhythm section slows down a half-step and when Darcy lets his guitar ring instead of scramble. But they’re only rarely interested in beauty every once in a long while. In the way they build scrappy punk songs into staring-into-the-horizon grooves, it’s clear that Ought have picked up some tricks from Television and from Fugazi. But where those bands’ dyamics were about tension and release, Ought are more about tension and still more tension. They don’t allow you that cathartic moment where everything breaks open or rushes forward. Instead, they dare you to find catharsis in the way that tension just keeps going, in the euphoria that can come from all that repetition. It works. You can disappear into those grooves.

Darcy, the band’s frontman, has one of those snarly and sardonic nasal-asshole punk-rock frontman deliveries. In his voice, I hear echoes of any number of frontmen past: Lou Reed, Tom Verlaine, David Byrne, PiL-era John Lydon, Mark E. Smith, Jello Biafra. But where most of those voices demand attention, forcing themselves to the front of any mix, Darcy’s voice exists completely within the nervous grooves that he and the rest of the band work up. His delivery is a rhythmic sneer, and sometimes he’s so completely within the storm of sound that you can’t hear what he’s singing. Sometimes, there’s a tourettic compulsion to the way he repeats things. On opening track “Men For Miles,” he flatly declares, “There were men for miles, there were men for miles / Well, it could just bring a tear to your eye.” He does it over and over, making a mantra out of it, and I have no idea what it means. Part of it is that Darcy loves the sounds that words make. He takes a moment to savor the sensation of the word “sensation” coming out of his mouth. But he’s also engaging with forms of boring everyday oppression that words can only really hint at. There’s a lot of fear of losing your personality to the profit-generating machine: “Suit and tie / Fits OK / Don’t take much / To make my day / Celebration.” There’s irony there, but it becomes genuine fear when his new mantra becomes something like “nothing holds, nothing takes.”

It all comes to a head on “Beautiful Blue Sky,” the eight-minute song that’s both the album’s centerpiece and its first single. “Beautiful Blue Sky” is slower than the songs around it, its fire more of a controlled burn. There’s noise in the music, but the noise isn’t driving the music. Over a rubbery elastic bassline and an arrangement that slowly and patiently builds, Darcy repeats the names of things that serve as tools for moneyed ruling classes: “War plane, condo, oil freighter, new development.” In the same cadence, he also repeats conversational banalities, things that middle-aged people say to neighbors who they barely know, to fill silence: “How’s the family? How’s your health been? Fancy seeing you here.” Phrases like those, delivered in Darcy’s wry voice, become accusations, damning a world that turns human beings into automatons. And as the storm of sound builds, Darcy comes to a heavy, fucked-up conclusion: “Yeah, that’s that we have / Just that and the big, beautiful blue sky.” That moment would be epiphany enough, but then Darcy flips it and turns it into something hopeful. As the music drops away, he intones: “I’m no longer afraid to die because that is all that I have left.” And then, its inverse: “I’m no longer afraid to dance tonight because that is all that I have left.” Just like that, a work of deep cynicism becomes one of idealism. It’s the one moment that the tension releases, and it’s spectacular.

Sun Coming Down is out 9/18 on Constellation Records. Stream it below and read our interview with the band here.

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Tags: Ought