Ought’s third album Room Inside the World is represented by a cover of indeterminate brush strokes, where colors blend into one another without a clear beginning or ending. Deep blue to gray to a sliver of pink, this is an album to immerse yourself in, losing track of beginnings and endings. Marking new territory with sophisticated contemplation and blurred genre lines, shimmery chaos and sorrow make Room Inside the World a seamless, sensory sound-bath that you’ll want to dive into again and again.
It’s an alarming departure from their earlier work. Their previous two albums are classified by a somehow cohesive dissonance, where instruments don’t necessarily combat each other but coexist in the same environment. Now the band seems to be embracing fluidity, moving from chaotic post-punk to art-rock full of rich synth and sticky hooks. It is not forced or ill-fitting, but rather a natural evolution and smoothing out of their previous sound.
Even thematically, Ought has turned a corner. While Sun Coming Down (2015) is a commentary on postmodern, apathetic culture, full of revelation and epiphany, Room Inside the World is less referential and less combatant of the world around us. It doesn’t point out a lack of feeling, but rather feels everything in a more intimate way. First and foremost a poet, Tim Darcy’s lyrics unfold stories and visuals as we listen. “It’s a feeling like falling / It’s lonely / and I can’t see floor through my feet again” he admits on the opening track, “Into the Sea” beneath a crescendo wave of reverb saturated vocals, gritty keys and fluid arpeggios. On “Disaffectation” he points towards discontent with “These city streets keep me holed up in my mind / Well here’s some liberation, you can order it online.”
Ought’s risks certainly pay off to create what is their most sophisticated work yet. However, where some tracks shine, others fall short. “Into the Sea” and “Alice” open and close the album with perfected restraint, whereas the timidity of “Brief Shield” and “Take Everything” seems more like a lack of passion and conviction. The single “These 3 Things” stands out among the others, preserving their post-punk roots and evoking heavy influences of 80’s new wave that were subtly available on their previous works. Over bubbling synth and constant drum machine, Darcy shifts his vocals back and forth from his characteristic sardonic twang to passionate pleading as repeats “Will I hear my soul?”
Above every track, however, looms the impassioned “Desire.” Reminiscent of “Habit,” an intimate account of slipping into addiction from their debut album, “Desire” burns slow with sorrow. The story of loss unfolds with tangible images of leaving a “petty little town,” but what is most striking about this track is the very concrete portrayal of the gut-wrenching nostalgia you feel after you’ve lost someone. He looks back fondly as he remembers what was, singing “The feel of your honey in the corner of my mouth, / Like a loop around the block /Like a shadow in your notebook.” Opening with romantically ethereal synthesizer, the song is soon grounded by modest instrumentation – only to be opened up again with a 70-piece choir as Darcy repeatedly calls out “Desire, desire / It was never gonna stay,” reaching new heights of despair.
Despite it’s shortcomings, Room Inside the World solidifies Ought as a force to be reckoned with. Where there was once cacophony there is now harmony, as the band polishes their sound and tries to find their voice. A long way from the tongue-in-cheek chanting of “How’s the church? / How’s the job?” on the iconic “Beautiful Blue Sky,” Ought has taken a step back. Observing the world with modest wisdom, Room Inside the World allows us to bask in all of our inexplicable emotions with chrysalism and marvel.
Room Inside the World is out now on Merge Records.
By Jordan Smith