Something unexpected and remarkable occurred during the third gig Ought performed together. It was November 2012, and the postpunk rockers were in the middle of a set at the Montreal club Brasserie Beaubien when suddenly something clicked during the cathartic number “New Calm Pt. 2.”
“For whatever reason, totally unprompted and without any internal discussion, we played it for 40 minutes,” recalls Tim Darcy, the singer/guitarist for this Montreal-based foursome. “It was a regular, three-band bill, and we weren’t even the last band. There was this very excellent Montreal band called Crabe that, after a while, went up to the organizer of the show and asked, ‘Uh, are we going to play?’ That’s a bit embarrassing, but the energy in the room was so awesome.”
Audience members were pulled onstage to sing, and Darcy taught a fan the riff on guitar, allowing the singer to meander about the venue. This elongated edition ended up informing the song’s development (it was later rereleased in more aggressive form) and left a lasting impression on the band. Darcy considers it to be a seminal moment: when Ought forged their sound.
They’re currently engaged in another noteworthy break, having released their second LP, Sun Coming Down, on September 18 via Constellation Records. The eight tracks are a gratifying follow-up to their 2014 breakthrough debut, More Than Any Other Day, which thrust the band into the indie rock spotlight seemingly overnight. Darcy, keyboardist Matt May, drummer/violinist Tim Keen, and bassist Ben Stidworthy met while they were students at Montreal’s McGill University and began writing politically charged songs in the summer of 2012.
For the new album, Ought were able to harness the same energy that made their debut so impressive, highlighted by Darcy’s irregular vocals with support from the band’s often hostile playing. Sun Coming Down tracks “The Combo” and “Celebration” recall the early college rock of the Feelies and Talking Heads (with extra distortion pedals), while album centerpiece “Beautiful Blue Sky” exhibits Ought’s penchant for crafting sprawling compositions that read like the paranoid monologue of Darcy’s thoughts. There’s a frequent two-handed approach in how they structure their songs, and Darcy can’t help but laugh when unraveling the repeated routine.
“It’s funny to look back as we develop a sense of ourselves,” he says. “We either do these songs that do the same thing for an absurdly long time and it’s just one idea and we go for it. Or we have these manic, compressed things where two ideas are shoved together. We get a lot of satisfaction from taking these two moments and making them feel really cohesive.”
The singer’s idiosyncratic delivery has earned him comparisons to Lou Reed, David Byrne, and the Fall’s Mark E. Smith, and his skill as a lyricist is showcased during “Beautiful Blue Sky” as he patters out details exposing the banality in everyday existence: “War plane, condo, new development/Time again, people coming up/They been together now and time again.” The drone — all seven minutes and forty-four seconds of it — ends on a (kinda) optimistic sentiment: “I’m no longer afraid to die/’Cause that is all that I have left.”
But again, what defines Ought as a compelling young act is Darcy’s captivating voice, and throughout Sun Coming Down his vocals are at their most robust and realized, in particular during the ballad “Passionate Turn.” He credits part of this evolution to a vocal coach he began seeing after recording More Than Any Other Day, saying these lessons were some of the more “transformative experiences” of his life and relating them to therapy. His vocal coach informed him that the way he had written certain melodies in early Ought songs had begun to destroy his pipes. Heeding this concern, Sun Coming Down features vocal tones that refrain from ripping his throat to shreds. During certain moments in “Passionate Turn” and “The Combo,” Darcy burrows into a deeper register to produce a baritone growl, amplifying the fervor while protecting his artistry.
“I go onto my Elvis voice for a second and for me it’s so much more emotive and captures the same spirit of the original thing. And it’s also much easier for me to sing,” he says. For him, “Passionate Turn” is an “attempt at a Bruce Springsteen homage.”
Ought return to New York for a late show at the Mercury Lounge and then hit Bushwick’s Secret Project Robot the following night. Their original Brooklyn date was planned for Silent Barn, but they were forced to reschedule due to a fire that broke out in the performance space on September 25. (In a post on their Facebook profile, Ought praised the communal NYC venue: “We chose this space specifically because of the thoughtful way it is run, and engages with the community,” they wrote. “It’s a very special place.”)
While on the road in support of his band’s debut last year, Darcy took notes on the group’s experiences, which would later inspire the lyrics for the new album, such as a throwaway comment that would wind up as the namesake for the single “Men for Miles.”
“That hook came from our sound tech, who was describing this one show she was doing in the South,” he remembers. “She said she was just looking around from up on this platform and saw men for miles, and that line just stuck with me.”
With what we know about Darcy’s writing process, Ought’s time in New York could very well seep its way into the lyrics of a future album. Too bad they’re a week late for Pizza Rat.