A crucial step forward from songwriters with the chops and courage to continue to challenge our expectations of indie rock.
Ought has risen to prominence performing the sort of heady, intricate indie rock that can be a difficult ask for some listeners. The band does it better than just about anyone else, but what it does may not have the appeal of punk-derived or AOR-inspired indie rock. That’s just fine, though: its first album arrived fully-formed with fresh ideas, its second refined those ideas until the band was essentially a well-oiled machine. But where does a band go after it’s more or less perfected the one thing it does? On Room Inside the World, Ought presents an unexpected answer: you go just a little bit pop.
The band’s previous records expressed warm, earthbound tones that evoked post-punk in their avant-garde intricacy but also seemed tied to the modesty of ‘90s indie rock, even if songwriter Tim Darcy studiously avoided lackadaisical snark. By contrast, Room Inside the World is decidedly chilled and slick. Chorus-laden guitars and tight rhythms are the order of the day, and every move feels slightly more deliberate than usual. Darcy has stated in interviews that he considers Room more of a studio record than either the previous two Ought albums or his solo record, and moments have that studio shimmer. Even some of the simpler changes, like keyboardist Matt May replacing the droning organ sound he used with a fuller-sounding piano tone on “Into the Sea” make the music seem more grandiose and accessible than what we’re used to, yet it never seems as if Ought is playing down to an audience or compromising its vision.
It helps when you have the right set of songs to execute this style, and many of Room’s poppiest moments are among the highlights of the band’s career. Lead single “These Three Things” is a tight, New Wave-inspired mini-epic that feels like wiry, anxiety-ridden Roxy Music driven by Darcy’s wonder of a vocal performance that perfectly balances realism and theatricality. “Disaffectation” recalls bands like Preoccupations in how deftly it recaptures the sound and mood of early ‘80s post-punk, yet the band’s technical skill and interplay adds newer dimensions. Yet the true standout is “Desire,” a barn-burner that marries sophisti-pop with the heart-on-sleeve exaltations of Bruce Springsteen to create something unlike anything Ought has ever done before. It’s the closest that the band comes to full-fledged pop, and it shows that Ought doesn’t just have the versatility to write pop songs; it can write great pop songs.
If there is any criticism to be lobbed at Room Inside the World, it’s that Ought doesn’t entirely commit to its new direction. A few songs on are very much what you would expect from Ought, albeit presented in a more measured manner. “Take Everything,” for example, swings in a way that its previous work didn’t, but otherwise sounds very much like Ought doing its Ought thing, and “Disgraced in America” sounds like an outtake or leftover track from Saturday Night. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with these songs, as well-written and enjoyable as anything else Ought or Darcy has done in the past. Yet, when we’re presented with some relatively new ideas on the same album, hearing slight variations on well-worn ideas and styles can be jarring and disappointing no matter how good the songs.
Still, it’s refreshing to hear the band exploring new aspects of its music, however tentative those steps may be. Far from a misguided experiment, Room Inside the World is a crucial step forward from songwriters with the chops and courage to continue to challenge our expectations of indie rock.