Wednesday, September 23, 2015

album review: 'sun coming down' by ought

So close to this time last year, give or take a month or two, I finally decided to cover the debut of the Canadian indie rock group Ought, More Than Any Other Day. Based out of Montreal, cracking with the hyper-literate jittery energy you'd expect from university students recording while the student population was protesting, it won a lot of critical acclaim from critics for the obvious parallels to Talking Heads or maybe even Vampire Weekend. I was a bit more ambivalent on the group, mostly because no matter how much I liked the smart lyricism and the interweaving chaotic sound of the record, it definitely overstayed its welcome, occasionally wasn't as nuanced as it tried to be, and ultimately left me with a distinctive feeling of anticlimax at the end.

Since then, Ought has been touring extensively, patching a new album together between shows and reportedly doubling down on their influences from Sonic Youth or maybe even The Fall, cranking up the energy and groove. On the one hand, I didn't have any problems with this - Ought never seemed like a band lacking in nervous energy, but I've been looking for some more aggressive indie rock as of late and this could probably satisfy. On the other hand, it didn't look like the band's issues with succinctness had gone away - only eight songs, yet your average song length is about five minutes, with the longest at nearly eight. But hey, if the music doesn't drag, I'm not going to complain, so what does Ought deliver with Sun Coming Down?

Honestly, just like the last Ought record, I've been struggling with this one - which is kind of amusing because the deeper I've dug into this record, the more I've found so many thematic parallels between More Than Any Other Day and Sun Coming Down, just transported to a slightly different setting with slightly wider scope. The most pronounced changes on this album are instrumental, but not so much that Ought's key sound has been lost so much as refined and focused. So yes, I'd argue that Sun Coming Down is an improvement, but I'm not certain by how much.

So let's start with the vocals from Tim D'arcy - yes, he changed his surname - and I'm happy to say there's been real improvement here. Not only are his vocals more audible against the mix - there are a few points where he gets drowned out, but far less than before, but his presence is much more assured and assertive, his nasal tone standing out with much more presence and bite in a way that reminds of a less theatrical Elias Ronnenfelt of Iceage, with more of a white-knuckled control on his words. It's less sung that half-yelping mantras that has that jittery energy but a shade more self-awareness and bite.

Of course, it helps that the instrumentation has been given more foundation and groove to work with on this album, less of the all-over-the-place ramshackle construction that could lose steam but an on-the-rails progression that ratchets up the tension to explode at any moment. It's a subtle shift and I can see some wishing for more of the wilder moments that characterized Ought's debut, but I'd argue this record hits with more of a consistent, cohesive punch, mostly thanks to the increased melodic interplay, more rigid grooves and drum progressions, and managing to keep the tracks from exploding off-kilter when unnecessary. The post-punk influences ring through most in the gallop of the bass and drums on songs like 'Men For Miles' or the thickening pile of riffs on the title track or the rickety tempo changes on 'On The Line', but in choosing to write more dense, frenetic tracks, Ought also manages to pull together some punk edge for 'The Combo' and especially 'Celebration', especially with that thicker menace in the bass balanced against the buzz of the guitars. But for me, the most striking moments were the most melodic: with such a solid foundation, the guitar interplay on the superb 'Passionate Turn' and album centerpiece track 'Beautiful Blue Sky', in the latter case with the spiky guitar licks coiling in upon themselves as the grooves mature, their longest track at nearly eight minutes and yet with enough progression to earn it. If I were to find anything to dislike about the instrumentation, it could be that I wish some of the guitar tones had a bit more texture and smoulder in a Viet Cong-vein, fitting with the more monochromatic sound and yet adding a little more seething intensity.

But then again, the more I try to unpack these lyrics, the less I'm certain that would work best with this album. Ought albums are always tricky to unpack - especially when you can't find complete lyrics for every song online - and this one is no exception, and yet as I've said before, it does play in a similar lane to the first record. Their debut focused on impending collapse, trying to find purpose before falling into the system if that purpose even exists. Sun Coming Down picks up inside that system of monotony, where the passion has faded and even if you climb the monument of achievement, all you will see are 'men for miles'. The record's first real gutpunch comes in the recognition of how hard it can be to restart passion when it failed in the past, and yet with all the signs falling into place, our narrator has his revelation: he loses his fear of death and loss. It's an exultant moment, one of the biggest highs on the album as he goes back into a world of superficiality and it almost seems like he approaches those manic conversations with the sort of free-spirited good humour that comes from not needing to care anymore. And currently working in an office environment and having seen people give their two weeks notice, that willingness to engage in trivialities because there's no consequences is pretty realistic.

And just like in reality, it unnerves everyone around them, because suddenly that social order is disrupted. It's why the amazing awkwardness and passive-aggression of 'Celebration' was great for me, as our narrator isn't so much embraced with his newfound energy - and yet he revels in his newfound disruptive momentum. But it's also drawn notice, as whatever sparked his first passion comes back into the light and pulls our narrator away from established order - or what is perceived by his superiors as sparking it - and they try to rope him back to sign on the line, fall back in step, or at least highlight everywhere it could go wrong - the same conclusions our narrator has already drawn himself. And the ambiguity of the closing track 'Never Better' intrigues me further - you could take his words as a passive-aggressive exit as he drives a truck loaded with everything into that setting sun, or as that new job as a different cog with more independence, the 'never better' words passed off as he holds onto his newfound passion within even as he continues on the edges of that system. 'He loved Big Brother' moment or a chance to conceal his resurgent passion under the guise of 'independence'? I honestly doubt we'll ever tell if there is a payoff to the narrative, or if there's a narrative at all because the interviews I dug up suggested that there were adlibs a plenty on this record and in my favourite line, 'I'm talking out of my ass, because my heart is not open'. 

Regardless of that, there's a riotous tension on Sun Coming Down by Ought, the sort of record that's straining at every edge yet has the poise to know when to explode. Lyrically, it's drenched in sarcasm, non sequiteurs, and lines that are profoundly perfunctory, and the way it can forcibly subvert the mundane hits me surprisingly hard. I wouldn't quite say it's a classic or a truly fantastic record - not every song hits with the impact of its best, and the production doesn't quite give Tim D'arcy's voice enough room to breathe - but for me it's a 8/10 and definitely a recommendation. I can't say this'll be for everyone - Ought is a band that outright shuns pop appeal and it's a tricky album to deconstruct - but if you put in the time, it's definitely worth it.

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