When was the last time a rock song made you angry? Has any band from the past ten years prompted you to look at the world around you, stand up, and say, “Enough is enough?” Rock music has lost much of its cultural relevance since the turn of the millennium, leaving behind politics and letting rap take over as the unofficial genre of protest music. Though Kendrick Lamar and Run the Jewels assail the powers-that-be (as they should), there are no Sex Pistols or Talking Heads, and Bob Dylan is so old he might as well be dead.
Instead, we have Ought, a four-piece band with members from the United States and Australia, who met in Canada. Ought is quite possibly the last great political rock band, even if the members aren't overt about it.
Since the band burst onto the North American music scene in 2014, Ought has mainly described modernity and how it’s crushing all of our souls. The group's two albums and one EP express the hopeless optimism of millennials who are caught in the gears of a system they feel powerless to fix and obligated to fight. In a sense, the band was born in protest: It was formed at McGill University in Montreal shortly before the 2012 student protests against tuition hikes in Quebec known as the "Printemps Érable" ("Maple Spring," a French pun on "Arab Spring").
In the bandmates' subsequent work, they've been able to draw from both that political unrest and Montreal's robust rock legacy. On their records, one can hear influence from not only the postpunks of the late '70s and early '80s but also the desperate existentialism of Arcade Fire and the caustic, apocalyptic sound of Constellation Records label-mate Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Ought also shares both of those bands' enthusiasm for crescendos — the building and thickening of sound used on tracks such as Arcade Fire's "No Cars Go" and basically every single Godspeed You! song.
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Nowhere else is this characteristic more evident than on the almost-title-track to Ought's first LP, “Today More Than Any Other Day.” It begins slowly, with a single, hollow-toned electric guitar that picks up until it’s charging at breakneck speed with the drums. Vocalist Tim Darcy, who sings in an unrestrained, shouting style that fuses the talk-singing of David Byrne with the strained, emotional rasp of Hamilton Leithauser of the Walkmen, enters the scene. He repeats the lyrics “We’re sinking deeper” over and over as the tune picks up, and soon he’s shouting about going to the market to buy some milk as if it’s a holy obligation. The song is a moment of hope in a dreary world where we define ourselves by the products we buy even though, as Darcy concludes “we’re all the fucking same.”
Their second LP, Sun Coming Down, took their style in a more accessible direction, jettisoning the ambient portions of More Than Any Other Day and concentrating on rock jams and caustic lyrics reflecting a healthy suspicion of polite society, settling down, and middle-class conformity. Dance-punk tune “Beautiful Blue Sky” features Darcy checking what seems like roadside advertisements — “Warplane, condo, oil freighter, new development” — before making ironic, disaffected small talk in the song’s chorus. The more melodic “Passionate Turn” is even more resigned, with lyrics about dashed hopes and dreams: “I am digging the silence/Don't need no house on the moon/I'm gonna take mine in the valley/Goodbye to everyone I know.”
With their upcoming album, Room Inside the World, taking cues from New Wave and pop, the bandmates seem to be letting the sun set on their political side. And that’s a shame, because Ought was ahead of the wave, capturing the atmosphere of dissatisfaction with the world right before it crystallized into direct action. That's what they sang about on “Habit,” a certain nameless feeling: “There is something, something you believe in/But you can’t touch it, you can’t hold it.” Today, people across the land certainly know what they believe in. The habit has formed.