Ought’s Room Inside The World Is A Rewarding New Chapter
It may divide fans initially, but the album finds the band going in exciting new directions
If you go back to the great post-punk bands of the late ’70s and early ’80s, you’ll find plenty of artists who started out avant-garde and challenging and stayed avant-garde and challenging throughout their career. But you’ll also find a stereotypical arc that played out in the history of ’80s music: that of the young and feverish post-punk band discovering poppier forms as they grew up, gradually warming to the gloss of new wave, the muscularity of mainstream rock, the general notion of accessibility and more direct hooks. It was a very common turning point, from Simple Minds to Joy Division/New Order, one that tons of bands in their lineage — like, say, Merchandise — have followed in decades since.
Now, Montreal’s Ought, one of the most beloved post-punk artists of their generation, are releasing Room Inside The World — their third album and first for Merge Records — and may have reached that transition point, too. Sort of.
When Ought burst onto the scene with the one-two of 2014’s More Than Any Other Day and 2015’s Sun Coming Down, they were already messing with history. Their take on post-punk was fittingly propulsive and nervy, but also bright and sneakily optimistic. That blossomed on Sun Coming Down in particular, one of the best albums of 2015 and, in its way, a logical endpoint for that version of Ought. Since then, the band toured the record, frontman Tim Darcy explored new territory on his 2017 solo LP Saturday Night, and the band changed up their writing process to craft their new album and potentially open a new chapter in their career.
Last year, Darcy described Saturday Night as a “dead split” between the old and new; that could’ve referred to the fact that the album comprised material from before and during his time in Ought, but it could just as easily mark the album as a hinge between Ought’s first phase and now. On his solo outing, Darcy started singing in different modes, over music that encapsulated new wave and old-school rock ‘n’ roll balladry. In the past, Ought wrote their music as a collective, but it isn’t hard to hear residual effects of Saturday Night in the expansion of Room Inside The World.
The input of each of the band’s four members is still crucial to development of their work: They kept a digital mood board of inspirations that ranged from stray synth tones they liked to spiritual inspirations like Brian Eno and Gerard Richter. (The songs on Room Inside The World could play well alongside both Richter’s smeared photorealism and his vivid, abstract work.) That was one foundational aspect of a totally new process for them. “The project of the third Ought record was … to be more adventurous with sound and very much make a studio record, whereas the first two LPs were much more live and hectic,” Darcy said in a recent interview. They took more time with the compositions, honing each sound. The result is a collection that shape-shifts subtly, and has a different kind of dramatic impact thanks to the wider range of flourishes than what was present on the group’s first two albums.
That means there’s room for a song like “These 3 Things,” a new wave jam turned skeletal and fried. And there’s room for the Lynchian smoke tendril closer “Alice” and the arid conclusion in “Pieces Wasted.” One of the album’s highlights is its centerpiece, “Desire.” It sounds like a drunken Nick Cave impression — that’s meant as a compliment — until it gradually finds its way to a genuinely gorgeous climax dominated by a choir and Darcy unleashing some truly U2-esque “Whoa-ohs.” Alone, it may have raised some eyebrows — this is far from the Ought we knew. In the context of the record, all of these different directions make more sense, each one morphing little vignette that contributes to the overarching project.
Room Inside The World works in contrasts, roughened art-rock and nuanced post-punk that takes its time rather than racing forward. There are a lot of styles and textures at play here, individual songs often holding competing elements together, like the way “Disgraced In America” begins as a rollicking State Of The Union and collapses into a diffuse, uneasy outro. Many of the album’s best songs have that characteristic, especially cuts like “Desire,” where the band introduces you to a particular image, and then steadily and slowly warp the song so that by the end there’s been a complete and gratifying journey that may have obscured its discrete turns along the way. You can tell the band’s reference points might’ve shifted since 2015, but the way they collapse them together within individual songs makes it hard to trace any direct antecedents for the album.
The biggest difference, however, is really Darcy, who not only often sounds like a completely different frontman than on past Ought releases, but occasionally sounds like completely different frontmen in the span of one song. Compared to the adenoidal post-punk bark he affected on More Than Any Other Day and Sun Coming Down, he’s approaching a new wave croon now. But he breaks it down, deconstructs it — again, you can sort of locate reference points, but they’re skewed relative to your expectations. Darcy spends a great deal of Room Inside The World singing melodramatic Morrissey and Bryan Ferry melodies in a Nick Cave cadence while throwing his voice around into different timbres, the way Davids Bowie and Byrne might.
While that may be the aspect that takes some getting used to for older Ought fans, it’s simply the next step in the transformation Darcy began on Saturday Night. He’s exploring where his voice can go. But his greatest weapon remains his sharp ear for idiosyncratic diction, the way he savors particular words. He turns each syllable of “Disaffectation” — in the chorus of a song of the same name, one of the best on the album — into a sharp, percussive jab. He mutates constantly during the tumultuous left-turns of stunning opener “Into The Sea,” intoning then sneering, wrapping himself around words both anxiously and luxuriantly. There are tons of moments like that in these songs, where Darcy’s seemingly bizarre vocal decisions just make a song stick with you, like when “Take Everything” sharpens itself into a slashing mid-tempo track and he slides into something approximating a Britpop snarl, singing “Sixteen and what have you found out/ Sweetly and a little bit stoned out.”
Yet while Room Inside The World might portray an older and evolved Ought, the band that formed after a student protest has lost none of their fervor when it comes to grappling with the world around them. The album’s title is, like a lot of the album, a phrase that could be straightforward until you realize how they’ve tweaked it just a bit.
What exactly is a “room inside the world,” anyway? It conjures a specific image, though. A place of solace, perhaps. Or: as the world spins further out of control and recognizability, the temptation to retreat into an insular little bubble within the real and convoluted environment outside. Of course, that’s part of what led us to the culture of 2018, and Ought remains a band engaged with the climate of the times. Going into that room may be some necessary self-care, but it also needs to be a temporary recharge before returning to deal with today.
This is what they came out with: An album that may divide and surprise fans initially, but one as impactful as their past work while broadening their powers. An album that balances sardonic screeds — “Yeah I was disgraced in America/ What if I told you, what if I said/ I built it myself and it feels so good?” — with the numb rush of “Disaffectation” or the fractured love of “Desire.” One that goes from the roiling envelopment of “Into The Sea” all the way to the barren dreamscape of “Alice.” An album that constantly shoots off into unforeseen directions and yet comes together into one complicated and messy entity, one that asks something of you each time you decide to enter that room but consistently reveals that it has something to offer you in return.