The description that most commonly follows Ought is “post-punk.” This is both accurate and misleading, in that they embrace a natural and experimental outgrowth of punk’s aesthetic sensibilities without actually sounding much like those bands who came to define post-punk in its heyday. They employ neither the darkened pulse of Joy Division nor the sleek minimalism of early Cure records, and they rarely lock into the muscular disco grooves of Gang of Four and Public Image Limited. Rather, their debut album More Than Any Other Day reflected perfectly a Constellation-label abstraction of Talking Heads genre mélange and twitchy Feelies build-up. Their songs didn’t so much groove as follow a temperamental and intangible feeling, itching their way toward climactic eruptions and clashes.
Ought’s third album Room Inside the World—their first released via Merge—doesn’t upset that approach altogether, but it’s the closest to a classic dark-dancefloor sound the group’s ever delivered. What’s more, its early single “These 3 Things” is a song that finds frontman Tim Darcy consumed by lust, asking “Why must my dirty skin be hot when you come near me?” as the band locks into what’s easily their sexiest rhythmic arrangement. Coming from a band that wrote a slow-burning motivational anthem that celebrated the decision between two-percent milk and whole, it’s a bold and unconventional move. But it’s one they take to naturally; just because conventional structures don’t bind them doesn’t mean they can’t work within them.
The band takes some wide swings between moments of taut, rhythmic focus and ambitious art rock throughout Room Inside the World. Increasingly, Darcy’s voice takes on a tone similar to that of latter-day Scott Walker, in which case the latter makes a strange kind of sense. When Darcy bellows a suitably Walker-ian phrase, “I see the stain in the people now,” over sustained piano chords in opening track “Into the Sea,” it sounds like the work of an entirely different band. Yet the band gradually transitions into something resembling early ’80s U2 fed through a more psychedelic filter, almost so subtly as to make it feel like a well-executed illusion. The dreamy ballad “Brief Shield” carries a jazzy sensibility that recalls The Sea and Cake, which feels like an earned if brief break from the more urgent existentialist punk of “Disaffectation,” wherein Darcy finds reason to celebrate friction and resistance: “Disaffectation is holy, it makes me feel alive.”
Room Inside the World operates somewhat more like a conventional post-punk album than the group’s previous two full-lengths, but in a sense that’s yet another of the illusions the band pulls off so masterfully here. However locked in they are, and however downstrokes there are in each progression, they’re still ultimately progressive. Ought isn’t a band that can remain in one place or even on one path for long, and Room is no exception in that regard. Rather than perform post-punk in any conventional sense, Ought are carving their own niche by pursuing unknown pleasures.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.