Ought — Room Inside the World
February 16, 2018
Montreal, Canada / Merge Records

Even though I only discovered Ought last year, it didn’t take long for me to fall for their approach to art- and post-punk. The band’s previous album, Sun Coming Down, is an incandescent array of shimmering guitars and emphatic drumming, all fronted by vocal thespian Tim Darcy.

On an Ought project, Darcy delivers these erratic, hollering vocals that hinge more on spoken word a lot of the time as opposed to actual singing—not unlike Talking Heads’ David Byrne. Even with all of the lyrical conviction that the Darcy performs with, it can still be difficult to parse any particular theme or meaning from a track, due to all of the art rock imagery. Sun Coming Down featured highlights such as “Excuse me; would you say there’s a chance of bringing this whole… fucker… down?” and “I am talking out of my ass because my heart is not open.” The entire album even closes on the line “I am writing with a cum alphabet”, which is a pretty astute description of art rock if I’ve ever heard one.

All of this being said, I was excited for the release of Ought’s third full-length album here, Room Inside the World. My mouth was watering even more upon the release of the first teaser track last year, “These 3 Things”, which immediately gave notice of a change in sonic direction for the band. The percussion took a much more mechanical approach, and the guitars were pulled back for some more electronic instrumentation; even Darcy’s spoken word deliveries took to becoming more of a smooth croon. The whole song came together in the form of a bustling pseudo-dance groove that I couldn’t help but love from the first instance.

Only placement in the ages
Frees me, then why can’t it please me?
And why must my dirty skin be hot when you come near me?
Must remember to dance alone at night
Keep the profane in the light
I have only got this life

So, going into Room Inside the World, I was expecting the band to stick with this dancier sound, and I decided not to spoil myself by listening to anymore singles. Perhaps if I had, I would have been more prepared for the fact that the rest of the album is far less of a romp than “These 3 Things” suggested.

Perhaps the trick with Ought is just to come into any new project expecting the unexpected. I certainly hadn’t expected an Ought album of all things to be a slow-burner, but opening track “Into the Sea” is just that. The album opens with a short piano passage before the rest of the instrumentation bursts in with these winding guitars and frenzied percussion. Thematically, the lyrics here are as dense as they were on Sun Coming Down, except Tim Darcy delivers them in almost one large bulk, as opposed to on the previous record where each line or couplet had its own individual punch to it.

All of these changes in sound and style suit the mood of the record much better than I had initially given it credit for. I loved the band’s previous LP for the way that the instrumentation was as bright and volatile as the sun itself; meanwhile, Room Inside the World blends its instrumentation together to create a nocturnal, introspective counterpart. Admittedly, on my first couple of listens, I thought that the production was outright drab, but I think that once you clear the instrumental hurdle, this album has just as much going for it as its predecessors.

The rest of the first half of the album serves to retain Ought’s instrumental muscle with the tracks “Disgraced in America” and “Disaffectation”. The former begins as a straightforward guitar tune that trades off in “choruses” with some vitriolic drums and keyboard jabs. “Disaffectation”, meanwhile, upholds its 80s dance groove throughout as Darcy gives some of his most passionate vocal performances on the whole record. There are a couple of points where the instrumentation skids to a crawl without any notice, just so it can pick back up and get people moving all over again.

You feel it again
Then run a mile
Knock at the door
Feeling your smile
These city streets keep me holed up in my mind
Well here’s some liberation, you can order it online

“Desire” takes the form of a drunken ballad to an ex-lover, as Tim recounts stories about some of the intimate moments they had shared. This is one of the more accessible songs in Ought’s whole discography, with its “It was never gonna stay” refrain, bolstered by choral vocals in the background, that most any listener will be able to vibe with without reading much into the lyrics.

The song “Take Everything” is about someone who is constantly worrying about everything as they hide away in the background to a point where it’s affecting those around them. Eventually the track explodes into these noise rock verses that start to drown out Darcy’s vocals, almost as if he’s the person that he’s singing about.

The other cuts in the latter half of the album don’t have as much of an impact, like “Brief Shield”, probably the slowest burner of the bunch, which doesn’t gain any sort of intention as it crawls along through a handful of lazily sung verses. “Pieces Wasted” is similarly sluggish, although it at least has a couple of phases of different instrumentation, and it also gets bonus points for using the word “agreeance.”

The closing track “Alice” is the least verbose song on the entire album, only featuring two verses before petering out into an instrumental drone for the remaining two minutes, save for the vocal wails in the distance that bring the album to its tepid conclusion.

I can’t see where we’re going
I wish I were somewhere else
That’s fine son duly noted
Haven’t left here in awhile
Haven’t left here in a very long while

Overall, while this album did grow on me quite a bit since I heard it for the first time, it’s still far from the most satisfying project that Ought have put out. I see the group as one that doesn’t ever want to settle into any one particular groove, and I can appreciate what they were trying to accomplish with this album. Most of these tracks are at the very least listenable, but there isn’t always enough substance for each song to be worth the multiple listens it asks for.

FAVOURITE TRACKS: Into the Sea / Disaffectation / These 3 Things / Desire / Take Everything