A number of musicians continue to reap the benefits of Mark E. Smith‘s politically charged and disillusioned post-punk, borrowing The Fall frontman’s themes of alienation in the digital age. But Ought takes the influence of Smith, who died in January at 60, to new lyrical and sonic heights.
The Montreal band’s charming and soft-spoken leader, Tim Darcy, credits Ought’s well-received new record, Room Inside the World to “a concerted effort,” but the band’s unique sound also relies on the harmonious coalescence of Darcy’s dense, poetic lyrics and uncanny vocal delivery.
Although The Fall championed Smith’s jaggedly nasal voice, frenetic mumble and scathing rants about the establishment, his lyrical posture made its mark amid the tense sociopolitical times of the ‘80s. While not as nearly abrasive in approach, Darcy’s politically charged incantations come across just as poignantly, if not stronger, than anyone within the post-punk scene—both past and present.
“I’ve been compared to so many iconic male lyricists over the years,” Darcy said in a phone interview last week. “In fact, with a lot of the comparisons, especially [Smith], shades of each individual sort of seeps their way into so many different songs. In the same way, being compared to any of these people is just incredibly flattering. Mark was obviously a paramount figure for a lot of artists—artists you wouldn’t think of being huge fans of him, and yet, they came out of the woodwork to eulogize him. My relationship with that voice comes from a place of spoken word poetry and witnessing fiery performances.”
On Room Inside The World, Darcy continues his streak of lyrical wittiness and rendering mundanity surreal and abstract. But unlike his post-punk contemporaries, Darcy does not try to assert himself as “someone with all the answers.” With “Disgraced in America,” Darcy’s words are hard to distinguish but highlight an overwhelming atmosphere of angry ambiguity: “What if I said/ They built it themselves/And it feels so good.”
“The struggle expressed in these songs isn’t as simplistic as ‘something is wrong,'” Darcy said. “The more ‘political’ songs are a result of me taking the hot air out of myself a little bit. That’s always been a part of my lyricism and Ought, especially in the political vein. With that being said, I think that there’s a time for pointed thoughts and opinions, and I get really turned on by those types of lyrics. But once you start to venture into the realm of posing exactly how things should be and as someone who has all the right answer, I think you can get yourself into hot water pretty quickly. When I’m writing, lyrics come from this place of ambiguity and … empathy surfaces along with this desire to funnel these emotions into something, while not necessarily having an end result. My lyrics are more so about processing these emotions.”
It may be easy to get fired up when listening to the immediate lyrics consuming Ought’s music, especially on Room Inside The World. However, Darcy’s tendency toward poetic beauty prevails and incites an urge to delve deep into what he is crooning over.
“I think about lyrics like a poem: I’ve been writing poetry for longer than I’ve been playing music,” Darcy said.
Darcy referred to his lyrical density as a gooey chocolate cake. There’s abstraction and awareness behind each word he utters. Nevertheless, Darcy admits to “being quite verbose” in the past, and with the latest record, he made a point to “not cram in as many lyrics and write in a much more calculated way.”
“[Melody] is what I’m thinking about first and foremost, and so I tried to bend words around that,” he said.
The Ought frontman wields his dynamic range as the band’s catchall. With vocal work that has stood out for its nervous energy, drawing comparisons to David Byrne, Room Inside The World sees Darcy far more melodic and somber, reminiscent of Scott Walker. While the change in delivery may be new to some listeners, Darcy points to Ought’s debut EP as the first sign of him “singing.” So why the decision to revert to this more melodic blueprint?
“It was intentional—for me, there’s a part of ‘the self’ that is so connected to art,” Darcy said. “I think art that’s genuine has a connection to ‘the self.’ In that sense, I’ve undergone personal changes in between records and I’ve funneled that into this record’s sound, which included me trying to improve my vocal delivery.”
Ought possesses both a hunger for innovation and the interest in songwriting, but this is especially true for its frontman. For many musicians, music is a be-all and end-all, but for Darcy it’s much more.
“I think of music as a kind of therapy in that there’s this sort of a hot gas that builds up in my brain and I have to let it out somehow,” Darcy explained, laughing. “Even when we’re traveling and I can’t play guitar, I have to find some way to exercise that desire, and sometimes playing a show would do that, which is why I value the performative aspect of music. But even if it’s just getting to write poetry or lyrics—that build-up is relieved—which may sound less appealing than it being just a ‘lifeblood.’”
Follow writer Kyle Kohner at Twitter.com/kylejkohner.