Last week, I found myself eating lunch with a guy who emailed me after he found a notebook I left on the ground and upon our conversation falling on the topic of mental heath and myself admitting a fair degree of unfortunate experience in the field, he proclaimed “Well, it must make you a crazy good writer.” This connection between superhuman creativity and mental anguish, whether it be garden variety depression or something more complex, is common place in modern pop culture for the very reason that people who tend to make amazing art also tend to be completely insane and terribly depressed about it. The harsh truth anyone with depression will readily divulge to you is that depression stands directly in opposition to creativity because well it kinda stands in opposition to everything. The grey river and everything else in the DSM-IV can be motivational in the sense that experiencing trauma is inherently capable of inciting deep emotions but the state of depression renders one incapable of producing most things especially those considered to be quality by their creator. This conundrum of trauma-fueled passion versus depression’s inherent limitations is at the core of Montreal band Ought’s music.
Playing tracks from their career-maker mission statement debut Today More Than Any Other Day’, Ought’s New York City debut was the sound of a young man finally finding the ability to make art out of his depression. The band’s jerky yet tight arrangements fill a room with the experience of a panic attack, masterfully controlled by frontman Tim Beeler, because well, he’s been there. Now Ought’s set makes no qualms about worshipping at the alter of post-punk, placing Beeler at the front of the pew channeling Saint David Byrne as he bobs back and forth limp-wristed and calls out to the crowd as the punk motivational speaker, more ‘Once In a Lifetime’ than Henry Rollins. This works for a 2014 Brooklyn audience, no cries of “imposter” are heard, and that’s plainly Beeler’s energy selling the whole thing because Ought in 2014 are still only a strong suggestion.
A suggestion of an aesthetic, a sound, and a band that, although soon to be great, is in its gestation period which has been prematurely exposed on a public level by the deus-ex-machina of the Pitchfork Best New Music (think Titus Andronicus circa ‘The Airing of Grievances’). The record is as strong as their live show. It is tight and there are strong moments of genius from the group as Beeler’s skilled words cut through every sound the band can muster and the instrumentation reaches punk funk heights reminiscent to The Pop Group’s ‘Thief of Fire’. The true strength of the band lies in the fact that their punk energies seem directed at their own depression that is due to living in society rather than the traditional punk stance against society itself. This mindset is plainly illustrated in pseudo-title track and song you’re bound to dig the most first listen, ‘More Than Any Other Day’ where Beeler coyly asserts in a list of assertions, “Today, more than any other day, I am excited to go grocery stopping.” This is a refreshing approach and Ought does it well but their limitations are apparent.
Beeler may dress, dance, and sing like Byrne but his guitar tone aims to drone like Deerhunter. Unfortunately, Ought’s instrumental white-out portions tend to pale in comparison to Bradford and company, thanks to the limited strength of Beeler’s single guitar output. I love the group’s intention to draw deeply from the history of post-punk while still attempting to “rip it up and start again,” even going as far as to sing the classic Orange Juice line and title of Simon Reynolds’ essential 2006 book on the genre, adding “I will.” However, they could undeniably benefit from a 48 hour long period of being trapped in a room with Gang of Four’s ‘Entertainment’ on repeat in the hopes that Beeler’s guitar tone loosens up and becomes more Andy Gill than Kevin Shields. The intention is clear but so is the fact that this whole thing is just the start of an interesting career for Ought.
Words: Nick Boyd