Review Summary: Ought are able to follow up their critically-acclaimed debut, More Than Any Other Day, with an even stronger sophomore effort -- one that affirms them as a key pillar within the structure of indie-rock today.
Cultivated by Montreal's bustling music scene, Ought were able to make waves in the blogosphere in 2014 with the their full-length debut, More Than Any Other Day
. Released through Constellation Records, it proudly displayed the band's unique and invigorating conglomeration of post-punk, indie-rock and noise-rock--characterized by skittering and abrasive guitars, unconventional song structures, and front-man Tim Darcy's unbridled vocal deliveries, which contain his abstract but purposeful lyrics. Their sound was certainly not without precedence, but with palpable enthusiasm, the quartet consolidated their influences in a way that was both refreshing and affecting--and people took notice. Only a year later, they returned to follow up to their critically-acclaimed success with Sun Coming Down
. Unstifled by the brevity of that time-frame, Ought were able to reach, and in some ways surpass the benchmark set by its predecessor; boasting a slightly grittier, more consistent, all-together stronger encapsulation of their vision.
Sonically, it's expectedly similar to their previous effort, but there are some noteworthy differences. The contribution that keyboard once played has been virtually deserted, making way for the guitars to assume greater prominence and fill out the newly vacant space--and do they ever
. Whether they're staunchly strumming with post-punk militarism, dancing over quirky indie-rock melodies, or blissfully approaching noise-rock cacophony, Ought displays a keen attention to guitar texture that has been absent in their music until now, and serves to strengthen it. Another key difference this time around is in the production, the budget for which was undoubtedly increased following the success of their debut: the low-end has substantially more punch, the guitars shimmer brighter, and Darcy's vocals sound even more intimate. Lastly, there were a number of moments in More Than Any Other Day in which the playing was relatively quiet, whether to build anticipation for the following movement, or to access their more sentimental side. Though some of these moments were ultimately gratifying, such as in "Habit" and "Clarity!", more often than not, they would have been better off forgoing the dynamics and getting on with things. With Sun Coming Down
, quiet passages are far less prevalent--and where they are implemented, they're fitting--imbuing the record even with more vigour than it's antecedent, and that's saying a lot.
One element that hasn't changed in the slightest, and is arguably the most distinctive and essential contributor to Ought's success, is Tim Darcy's eccentric vocal performances. It's doubtful they would have been able to make it this far without him. The chorus of album-opener "Men For Miles" immediately highlights his versatility and spontaneity: at one moment, he's sternly declaring, "There were men for miles, there were men for miles / doesn't it just bring a tear to your eye?" in a seemingly sarcastic monotone, while the next, his voice is trembling to the point of near fracture as he earnestly repeats, "a tear to your eye! / a tear to your eye!"; initially he's adopted a jaded nihilism, then moments later is fraught with compassion for the human condition. As they transition back into the verse, his persona morphs yet again, this time into a cheeky sing-spoken voice that asks, "Excuse me, would you say there's a chance of bringing this whole ***er down?" Darcy's erratic tendencies, and ability to transform his style of delivery to accommodate for what he's feeling at any given moment are what make him the unique and entertaining front-man that he is.
And the rawness of his performance certainly isn't let down by what he's using it to communicate. While his improvisational, train-of-thought approach to lyricism typically leans toward abstraction, it almost always carries intentional meaning. It's a crying shame that the physical copy of this album doesn't include a lyric booklet, as there are a few instances where the clamour swells and overtakes the verbal onslaught--but mostly, it'd just be nice to be able to carefully appreciate the poetry this album contains. In the first verse of "Passionate Turn", Darcy questions the pursuit of an ideal through metaphor, "I imagined a perfect room, never been so far away / Though my feet never touched the floor, I don't know what I came here for." This ideal is manifested as love in the pre-chorus, as he concedes, "I have given up love, you have given up love / Doesn't mean that I held it right, doesn't mean that I held it at all." He uses that last word as a segue into the chorus: "All comes back here, when I hang my head and cry, oh / it's too much all for you, it's too much all alone," wherein he accepts the futility of his actions: whichever way he proceeds, he's going to hurt, and continue to hurt, indefinitely. In this song he's speaking on love, but the over-arching theme it grapples with can just as easily be applied to any other activity one engages in for its own sake; it's just one example of the lyrical prowess that permeates Sun Coming Down
, bestowing it with some enduring moments of introspection amidst the commotion.
Though they play a more supportive role in the album, the employment of drums and bass are not to be overlooked. The former stays nimble and busy throughout the run-time, providing awkward rhythms, steady 4:4 swings, or blistering aggression, depending on what's warranted. The latter seeks to anchor the ruckus above it, and occasionally supplements more engaging grooves when the guitars are both preoccupied wailing into infinity. Both successfully play the delicate role of contributing to these tracks without distracting from their cores. Another element that should not to be undersold is the diversity of song structures used here: some follow a more conventional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-ending structure, while others wind through a series of movements, not once looking back. This variation in architecture is especially effective within the context of Ought's pseudo-experimentalism, and serves to add an element of unpredictability to the first listens, as well as replay value over time.
All of these pieces fit together with particular magnificence in center-piece "Beautiful Blue Sky", which showcases Ought working at full-capacity. Oddly enough, it's arguably their most accessible piece to date, as well as their longest, clocking in at nearly eight minutes. It takes it's time to build up momentum, opening with a straightforward drum beat and bass line. The guitar and keyboard saunter in next, establishing a spacious melody, which are then followed by Darcy. "With the light comin' down over your shoulders/ saying, 'what is that sensation? What does that sign say?' ", he ponders and repeats; he's stirred by an ostensibly mundane sight, as a peculiar moment of awe and wonder cuts through the banality. Suddenly, one of the guitars veers into abrasion, and in turn he adopts an new, authoritarian voice. Between the spurts of guitar screech, it resolutely announces, "War plane!/ Condo!/ Oil Freighter!/ New Development!", listing off sources of post-industrial economic stimulation. He continues, "I feel alright! I feel alright! I feel alright! I feel alright!", and at this point it's unclear whether the sentiment is out of obedience, irony, or perhaps even sincerity. As the instruments shift into the chorus, Darcy assumes yet another persona--one that is apparently unconcerned by the alarming rate of unhindered development that the previous passage alluded to--repeating routine conversational phrases such as, "Well, how's the family?/ How's your health been?/ Beautiful weather today!/ How's the church? How's the job?". The persona's outright avoidance of this looming source of anxiety, and the common thread running through these phrases are unequivocally linked: they highlight our propensity to subconsciously worry about impending tragedy--danger, illness, loss of family and friends, and most importantly, death--and to either cling to news of the deferment of these grim inevitablities, or shun them completely. Later on, all but the drums cut out, and in a liberating epiphany, he finally confronts the matter directly, declaring, "I'm no longer afraid to die, 'cause that is all that I have left", followed by a resounding "yes!
". It's a pivotal and striking climax. As Darcy is released from the shackles of fear for his mortality, the instrumentation further amplifies the moment's weight: the guitars reach outward and unfurl in particularly gorgeous fashion above the steadily driving beat. All the while, Darcy's presence is absent for the rest of the track's length, allowing the magnitude of his realization to sink fully in. This song-defining passage is well-suited as the thesis statement of the entire album, and in truth, they've got a telling point here: that our brief, futile existences, as well as those of those we're surrounded by, are all that we ever truly
have; "it's all that we have, it's all that we have--just that, and the big, beautiful, blue sky."