Ought’s Room Inside the World: Obtuse, difficult, self-absorbed and still brilliant

Ought are different, there’s no doubting that. There is a passage in Julian Cope’s brilliant (and hopefully ongoing) autobiography, Head On/Repossessed, where Copey weighs up the routes to success in the 1980s for an artist like him. I quote: “I was no judge of my position in music. I had this romantic notion of myself as a  has-been, waiting to spring his biggest surprise on an unsuspecting world. […] Yeah for me the road to enlightenment was an uphill cycle path with a maximum speed of 5mph. And every day the hill was getting steeper. The road to narrow-mindedness was an eight-lane freeway, downhill all the way. It would have been a pleasure to drive on. But I couldn’t take the risk – there was no fucking speed limit at all.” Like Cope, Ought picked the uphill path. Because Ought have old souls. Ought are Lost Boys. And, like the hiccuping gaffer in the Hungarian murder mystery film Hukkle, Ought find themselves sitting and watching at the edge of their village, somehow part of everything but unaffected by the growing drama around them.

With Room Inside The World, Ought have made a very postmodern, “very 1980s” record. There is a strong sense of listening to LPs like Climate of Hunter, Born Sandy Devotional, Hats, or Sons and Fascination (all intrinsically very very different records in terms of sound to Ought’s). What they share is the presentation of an inner journey being informed by external pressures or stimuli, then reassembled into music. One wonders whether Ought have been getting lost in the nebulous, murky world of late ‘70s-early ‘80s Scott Walker, as now and again the voice has that same way of emoting fleeting impressions through pithy statements and half-thoughts over odd, faintly sickly pop tracks. Disaffection is a prime candidate here. As is the very weird These 3 Things. The odd flourish here and there also reminds me a lot of American Music Club, or  The Smiths around the time of Meat Is Murder. Another self-contained, powerful record with more than a few weird peeks round the twist.

We can also see, maybe, that Ought are indulging in their own postmodern, group-Odyssey. The album title spells it out, really. Whether washed up on Calypso’s island, looking for escape (as in the brilliant soliloquy and endpiece, Alice), or negotiating a path between the Scylla of sounding like their last record and the Charybdis of sounding utterly preposterous in the search for new perspectives, Ought are negotiating relatively unchartered waters in terms of attitude and headspace. They start the Room Inside the World with Into the Sea after all. A cheap shot on my part maybe, but this record, more than anything else they have done, is a journey and you’re on the ship with them.

Ought want to see you sweat, and they’re using all the nous they picked up over the past two LPs to that effect. There are some gargantuan tracks on the record, if not in terms of length but in terms of weight, the existential nature, the gravitas, the spiritual makeup of the music. Desire could be an updated take on Street Hassle, or a plod through the night with the ghost of David McComb at your shoulder, soaking up everything till sensual overload hits. Brief Shield is another example, a lament which ends up sounding utterly forlorn, like something out of a Wilkie Collins novel. Our job is to make sense of our reactions to all of this, as sometimes the spaces between what Tim Darcy is singing and the perceptions of the listener seem to be miles apart. You have to walk over the cinders to some extent to get what Darcy is emoting in, for example, Brief Shield. There are clues. As said earlier this record is, essentially, an internal conversation that may lead to some form of deliverance. It’s given away in the odd lyric: take “I was like a dentist rooting for pain” in Disgraced in America. To wit: the gnosticism and reserve displayed in Room Inside The World is different from the open-hearted debut More Than Any Other Day or the tougher follow up, Sun Coming Down.

Ought, though, are very more-ish. It’s not as if this record is a total slog to listen to. It’s not looking to beat you up. It’s not Pharmakon or Thighpaulsandra at work here. I can’t imagine any Ought record being a slog ever, despite the way they sometimes play tricks with their approach. The most traditional “Ought” Ought track here, Take Everything, sounds at times like a couple of modern alternative Dutch bands, Amsterdam troubadours Naive Set (it’s in the winsome melody) and Friesland’s The Homesick (the tough guitar-drenched reprieve). The chassis is Ought through and through; a very steady beat that encourages patient build ups and never stands in the way of the odd stylistic volte-face, or vocal conceit (see the very enjoyable Take Everything and the follow up track, the slothful Morrison-esque stream of consciousness, Pieces Wasted). Disgraced In America is a jolly Velvetalongathon, too; one that throws a rope bridge back to their past work.

They are such teases, aren’t they, Ought. Expecting us, the listeners, to do the heavy lifting for them. Expecting us to engage brain and senses in tandem. How dare they. Just look at the covers; always some guesswork involved. Hands, shapes and now brush strokes. What does it all mean apart from your own response?  Even so, and best of all, and despite all, Ought are not counterfeit. Ought haven’t cynically concocted some stylistic gameplan or route-map. They are the real deal and just want you to commit in kind. Room Inside the World comes out on Friday via Constellation Records. All words by Richard James Foster.