What exactly is it that separates Ought from their contemporaries? Like the rest of the current bunch of post-punk revivalists – Protomartyr, Idles and Shame et al – they’re mostly filtering sounds that have never gone out of fashion in indie rock through slightly more esoteric ones: Talking Heads via noise rock, Lou Reed via post-rock. They’re a more intense and cerebral incarnation of the post-punk sound than their early 2000s forebears like The Strokes, and all these bands have achieved rapturous critical acclaim, but a lot less mainstream attention. It’s easy to see why: there can be something pretty insular about this breed of band, and something very, very male. They’re often all snark and anger and snotty defiance, far more interested in talking your ear clean off than singing, far easier to admire than to love.
So why do Ought feel like the total opposite of this? Is it the way frontman Tim Darcy’s vocals seem to peel back his influences to get to their influences, making his songs feel classic and timeless where others sound like well-honed Nick Cave impressions? Is it the way his melodies seem so squarely aimed for human connection – a frequent theme of his songs – that even his most oblique lyrics sound poetic, rather than clever? Is it how the David Byrne-esque affectation of his performance seems completely removed from angry male punk authenticity, and paradoxically so much more earnest because of it?
All of these reasons are immediately apparent from Ought’s opening set of songs, taken from this year’s Room Inside the World. ‘These 3 Things’ and ‘Desire’ are among the least punk and most intimate songs they have ever penned, the former based around a new wave synth hook that gently pushes the band’s reference points forward to the early 1980s, and the latter a slowly unfurling, deeply romantic ballad that recalls soul and gospel. It’s big and sincere and emotional, a moment of pure beauty in a genre that sometimes seems very adverse to those. The band are on top form and are mixed well tonight, allowing these softer songs to still sound full, even when stripped of the choirs and wind instruments that accompany them on record. ‘Disaffectation’ is Room Inside the World’s sole moment of pure righteous power, and it sounds especially fantastic tonight, Darcy savouring every syllable of the word as he spits out the chorus with relish.
It’s the band’s older, noiser tracks that really ignite though, although never with simple fury. One of tonight’s highlights is ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’, the centrepiece of 2015’s Sun Coming Down, in which Darcy repeats basic social platitudes like “how’s the job? How’s the family” over and over again, stripping them of any humanity as the band crescendos magnificently behind him. Ought’s noisy rock sections have a way of capturing pure joy that transforms the ordinary plainness of the lyrics, until it cuts suddenly to a straight drum beat, and Darcy sings “I am no longer afraid to die, because that is all that I have left… and I am no longer afraid to dance tonight”. Like a similar lyric in ‘These 3 Things’ (“I must remember to dance with you tonight, I must remember I owe my heart”) it positions dancing as a solution to the ennui of modern life, personal joy as a way of transcending worldly despair. Set closer ‘Today More Than Any Other Day’ from their 2014 debut album pulls a similar trick, a slow, menacing intro breaking into a sugar-rush of excitable garage rock, as Darcy recounts with glee that “today more than any other day, I am excited to go grocery shopping… I’ll look into the eyes of the old man across from me on the train and say ‘Hey! Everything is gonna be OK!”. On Room Inside the World, Ought proved themselves to be versatile and sensitive songwriters, but live, they capture the full spectrum of their records perfectly. From pure beauty to pure joy, Ought imbue their music with the sensations of being alive, which is probably the most succinct reasoning for why they’re such a gem in the world of punk music.
Words by Joe Gilbertson
Photo: Jenna Ledger