By Jacob Jeffers
Ever since its debut in 2014, Ought has been a difficult band to label. The band’s first full-length release, More Than Any Other Day, was a powerful opening statement, mixing catchy indie rock songwriting with art-punk ambition and an unforgettable vocalist. Scarcely a year later, the follow-up, Sun Coming Down, cranked up the weirdness, throwing odd time signatures, scorching guitars and rambling spoken word passages into the equation.
Now, after a three-year wait, Ought has transformed itself again for its third full-length, Room Inside The World, in maybe their most drastic departure yet. This record is the Canadian four-piece’s first on the legendary alternative label Merge Records, and it’s clear that the change has allowed the band to stretch its legs in ways they never have before. On Room Inside The World, Ought is a master of reinvention, effortlessly jumping through different styles and arrangements with every song.
That’s not to say Room Inside The World is excessively weird–in fact, this is probably their most accessible release to date. The droning violin instrumentals (“Forgiveness”) and eight-minute spoken word odysseys (“Beautiful Blue Sky”) of their past albums are gone, replaced by straightforward art-punk with the same level of weirdness and ambition.
While Ought has always incorporated electronic elements into their music, it was never a major component of their sound. Room Inside The World, however, is full of ominous drones, arpeggiated keys, and fractured, glitchy textures that absolutely dominate the record. For a perfect example, listen to the lead single, “These 3 Things”, which is based on a metallic drum machine and layers of warped synths but scarcely any guitar.
As much as Ought has evolved as a band, Tim Darcy has grown equally as a vocalist. His signature nasally drawl has always been a major presence in their music, and it makes a return here. Just like the rest of the group, however, Darcy takes the opportunity to experiment like never before, leaping between the limits of his vocal range with impressive versatility.
On the second track, “Disgraced In America”, he alternates between his usual higher-pitched delivery and a deep, sneering baritone that he returns to throughout the album. He’s almost never explored the lower end of his voice like this, and it sounds almost deliberately forced and overacted. In lesser hands, it would sound cheesy, but Darcy’s charisma helps him pull it off. Ought’s vocals have always been polarizing, but as a prior fan, this is the best Tim Darcy has ever sounded. He’s matured without sacrificing his swagger and his style, and this record helps cement him as one of the most unique vocalists of this decade.
Everything I’ve discussed so far–the vocals, the electronics, the ambition–all come together on “Desire”, arguably the album’s highlight. The song starts quietly, with a warm, glowing arpeggio and soft electronic glitches echoing underneath. After a few seconds, Tim Darcy enters, matching the song’s emotion with a soft, crooning delivery that carries a vulnerability unlike anything Ought has tried before. As the song builds in intensity, adding drums, bass, and chorused guitars, so does Darcy’s emotion, until it peaks with him crying the song’s repeated refrain–“desire, desire”–as a series of distant choirs echo alongside him in the background.
It’s one of the finest and most emotional moments of the band’s career, and it’s the perfect representation of their expanded scope on their new album and their new label. It also neatly divides the record into two halves; the songs from the first half are far more energetic and accessible, while the second half is subdued and less immediately-gripping. It’s a stark dichotomy, and the sequencing works in the record’s favor as the band starts out firing on all cylinders and, song-by-song, slowly cools off until the album ends with the ominous, droning dirge of “Alice”.
Overall, Room Inside The World is a huge leap. It’s generally much more reserved than their past albums, and I have no doubt that the heavy emphasis on electronics rather than guitars will disappoint some former fans. Anyone willing to keep an open mind about the band’s change in direction, though, will find plenty to be excited about.
As their first record on a new label, this is a big statement, and it firmly establishes Ought as one of the most exciting and original bands in their field. I came into Room Inside The World with high expectations, and I’m happy to report that today, more than any other day, Ought has shattered all of them.