Jenna Ledger

Ought 2012–2021: Why the defunct Montreal four-piece’s volatile optimism is timeless and vital

Today, more than any other day, I’m excited to write about Ought. That this excitement comes in the wake of the band’s recently announced breakup may be considered a bit, well, insensitive. But nevertheless, that’s kind of been Ought’s whole MO in a nutshell: retrieving the unlikeliest of rallying points within moments of anxiety, despair, defeat or in this specific case, sadness.

Formed during the mass student protests in Quebec in 2012, obviously, those kinds of emotions stirred up tenfold. I always got the sense that Ought figured at the time that becoming a band was more important than what type of band they actually wanted to become, or even what they hoped to transmit out to the world. 

The band’s acclaimed 2014 debut album More Than Any Other Day, released on Constellation Records, drew a boatload of comparisons – The Velvet Underground, Pavement, Television, Sonic Youth, Talking Heads and Galaxie 500 to name just a handful – but the band never appeared to be all that referential or acutely aware of those sounds from the past. Their origin story could be considered as a soft reset of those late 70s post-punk beginnings. There was something disembodied about Ought’s music, as if they just naturally ended up sounding the way they did.

I still remember the second their debut record hit home like it was yesterday. I awoke on the sofa during a really hot summer day in my apartment when just a simple phrase pierced through my sleep-sullied daze like a dagger: “And there it comes again!”

“Habit”, with its lyrical allusions to addiction, comes across as a Velvets-like drug ballad, but for some reason, I knew at that moment they expressed something decidedly different. I can but imagine the foursome being at the protests thinking “well, it sucks that it has come down to this, but it’s so nice to see all these people unite for a common cause.” The song outlines how every setback is stalked by a victory, no matter how small, and within Darcy’s erratic voice, those silver linings always permeated through. 

With this realization, I started listening to More Than Any Other Day with completely different ears. Darcy’s quip on the title track about “being excited to go grocery shopping” started sticking in my psyche like a cherished memento every time I went grocery shopping myself. Within its frantic tempo changes, the song seethes through its fake smile, fighting strenuously not to let the inner cynic win the day. The cheerleader-like “Today! Together!” chant evokes the euphoria of a hard-won victory. Sonically, the album feels like all these familiar rock touchstones had been invented anew, and expressed through the band’s unique vernacular. 

High-wired through their instruments, Ought’s positive volatility felt incredibly urgent: the way “Clarity!” frantically flies off the rails around the two-and-a-half-minute mark, the nervous noisy guitars sound almost like a fanfare march. Then at 3:04, the song picks up again confidently, and it’s one of the most fist-pumping musical moments of the past decade. 

“Around Again” finds Darcy teetering and pacing on the edge like a modern-day companion to the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer”, building towards a breaking point. Then the song just shuts down and he contemplates: “Why is it that you can’t stare into the sun but you can stick your head into a bucket of water and breathe in deep?” It’s the kind of desperate, seemingly unrelated thought summoned to suppress the original concern. Then the music completely turns dark and sinister: it feels like someone being questioned in a courtroom and forced to gather themselves for concise, articulate dialogue to keep a lid on those torrential feelings. The darker twist in the song expresses this in grim, fatalist fashion: understatedly, this is just as haunting of a climax as Slint’s “Good Morning Captain”.

Ought were always about the quest for inner resolve. Unlike some of their contemporaries and followers, they don’t write angsty lyrics or stick it to the man in militant fashion. There’s a whole lot of questions with no real easy palatable answers. Their music works like the building of an escape hatch: let’s put thought X against thought Z, and see if there is some kind of middle ground or grey area we can veer into on a day-to-day basis. Rinse and repeat.

Though maybe not quite, as inevitably, bands do tend to evolve. On the second LP Sun Coming Down, it felt as if Ought became a little more aware of what made their debut so great. That tends to happen with a well-received debut and all the reviews you get and interviews you do give you a new abundance of impressions on how your music comes across. Most bands would probably end up biting off more they could chew after such critical acclaim, but I felt with Ought, they were a little taken aback by it. That subtle, creeping doubt actually became a source of strength instead of a burden: it allowed their innate sensitivity to really come forward in their songs.

“Passionate Turn” introduced an unmitigated beauty and romance to Ought’s music: the way Tim Keen’s precise polyrhythmic drumming and Ben Stidworthy’s bass are like two companions on a late-night drunken stumble. Darcy sings the lyrics “I don’t know why I become when I / Hang my head and cry out” with the innocence of an old nursery rhyme. Matt May’s soft keys are never concerned with adding another melodic beat, only to fill up the space.

Of course, the album’s first single “Beautiful Blue Sky” is seen by many as the band’s artistic pinnacle, and honestly, it’s easy to understand why. The song almost feels like a prose-like ode to the touring grind, a cycle of making fast friends, constant travel, and a rollercoaster pace of impressions that make it hard to actually enjoy the moment. Death seems like the one certain thing at some point, as Darcy illuminates so cogently: “I’m no longer afraid to die / ‘Cause that is all that I have left”, followed by a reaffirming “yes”.

The first time I heard the song was during Ought’s performance at Italy’s Beaches Brew festival in 2014, and I remember just being in instant tears: not sad tears or even happy tears, just raw unprocessed feeling cascading outwardly. It really crystallized what made Ought such a special band and what made music such a powerful entity in general: to be able to challenge and celebrate within the simplest of language, that’s a hard thing to achieve in this complicated world.

Even during those Sun Coming Down touring days, I felt the band became increasingly at odds with the conditions in which their best music had to take shape. That also includes the mental and physical toil necessary to keep going. After releasing two great albums in two years, Ought was being swallowed up by the industry machine, and ample time for reassessment and reconsideration appeared to distort their clarity of vision. Deadlines had to be met, budgets had to be considered. Meanwhile, Tim Darcy made incredible strides as both a songwriter and composer on his solo debut Saturday Night, dipping into Orbison-indebted lovelorn balladry, freak folk, and Scott Walker-esque avantgarde leanings.

Ought’s move to Merge was met with bigger expectations, both from fans and industry alike. Ought were seen as a harbinger of a ton of speak-sing post-punk bands getting label deals, and it would have made sense to continue down that familiar slipstream. But, by the time they recorded Room Inside The World, they had already become a completely different band. This sonic departure wasn’t a stark about-face either, more like a natural inclination to softer, more polished sounds. There were elements of Hounds of Love-era Kate Bush, Brian Eno, and Leonard Cohen. Fan reactions were obviously split down the middle.

But one thing that I loved about Ought was their complete lack of machismo: their music seems to be a highly deliberate left turn from big agitating mosh-pit starters like IDLES or Shame. Their music – even when it was more aggressive in sound – always felt like planting a seed for the longer haul, instead of short-term adrenaline-fuelled satisfaction. Not surprisingly, their admonishments against patriarchy, capitalism, sexism, and transphobia were present before they became big industry talking points during the latter half of the past decade.

I feel with Room Inside The World they doubled down on that notion of gradual progress amidst the daily challenge, and always rummage for that element of vindication. “To let there be a slow build towards overcoming, as opposed to a single point of attack,” Darcy said when I scooped the band for Drowned In Sound.

Room Inside The World has strings, choirs and more actual singing, adding elements of soul, synth-pop, and gospel into the mix. Even within this new direction Ought still could sound abrasive: “Disaffectation” effectively sounds like a New Order/Scott Walker collaboration, with jigsaw puzzle shards of guitar and synths piercing the eardrums on all sides. 

For some reason, I felt Merge severely underpromoted Room Inside The World. It was one of the band’s most beautiful, cohesive works, their real concentrated attempt to create from a more traditional songwriting acumen than just jamming inside a rehearsal space. It still sounds like an Ought record for all intents and purposes. I think it’s one of those records that will become much more influential down the line… it certainly deserves to be.

I always subconsciously felt Room Inside The World would become Ought’s last record as a band. It seemed like their definitive statement, all too aware that once you run out of things to say as a band, you’ll become a facsimile of what you once were. The pandemic provided plenty of room for contemplation, and as it just so happens, that’s what Ought have been doing so evocatively from the start. It just makes sense: so when the news came, I wasn’t the least bit surprised or blindsided.

In true Ought fashion, every downer has to come with a glint of jubilation, right? Therefore it made all the more sense to announce the band’s split with a new project involving Darcy and Stidworthy, plus U.S. Girls-drummer Evan Cartwright: Cola. “What’s on the other side / Of the blinding solar? / I’ll take it as it rides,” Darcy wonders with wide eyes on the first track “Blank Curtain”.

If his previous band has taught us anything, it’s that uncertainty for the future can breed some pretty awesome consequences.