How Ought Are Making America Think Again
“Wrestling with humanness permeates a lot of my lyric writing,” says Tim Darcy, guitarist and vocalist of Montreal post-punk band Ought. “I think one element is mitigating a distance between yourself and the rest of the world, finding something very minute that you can then relate back to life.”
Two LPs into their career, Ought have established themselves as one of North America’s most exciting post-punk outfits. Darcy — alongside Matt May (keys), Ben Stidworthy (bass) and Tim Keen (drums, violin) — shrewdly navigates tension, labyrinthine dissonance and a manic vitality that has landed the band on several year-end best-of lists.
The essence of the Ought experience, though, is Darcy’s uniquely prosaic approach to songwriting, which sees him transform the archetypal frontman role from teller to observer. Through musings on day-to-day minutiae — like grocery stores, laundromats and the weather — Darcy gives us an opportunity to think through his words and decide for ourselves how we see the world, oftentimes revealing greater political and social implications in the process.
I speak to Darcy on the phone while he's en route to a coffee shop in Montreal, where he’s lived since he attended McGill University (2009-2013). We talk about the roots of his observational approach to lyricism, and he cites Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and the Talking Heads as early influences. He also mentions David Byrne, recounting an anecdote when the Talking Heads frontman likened his own image to a road because it developed steadily over the course of his career. “It makes sense, when I think about a lot of the Talking Heads songs that I like, like ‘Road to Nowhere,’” Darcy says. “I’ve often thought about my image as being a window.”
As a window, Darcy differs from most lyricists. On the title track of Ought’s 2014 record, More Than Any Other Day, for instance, he declares in his signature newscaster voice, “More than any other day, I am excited for the milk of human kindness / I am excited to go grocery shopping / Deciding between milk fat percentages, 2% and whole.” Where so many writers make statements, Darcy leaves question marks. What’s so exciting about the grocery store? Where can we shop for human kindness? And does it only come in two varieties?
Universally known places and ideas, like the grocery store, or the laundromat — one of the settings for Ought’s “New Calm Pt. 2” video — permeate Darcy’s lyrics. The weather is another shared space. “Tell me what the weather’s like so I don’t have to go outside,” he implores in “The Weather Song.” Weather is common ground, one of the only things that anyone can be sure we’re all experiencing, which makes it a good baseline in Darcy’s search for some underlying humanity.
In Ought’s tour de force, “Beautiful Blue Sky,” the highlight of their excellent 2015 record, Sun Coming Down, he invokes the weather once again. Over eight minutes, the band oscillates between the same two chords while Darcy talk-sings in equivocal earnestness. “Beautiful weather today,” he repeats four times. “How's the church? How's the job? How's the family? How's your health been?” With the small talk that often constitutes social interaction, Darcy bombards us with our own lives to the point of madness. Then, calmly, confidently, he says: “I’m no longer afraid to die, 'cause that is all that I have left.” Is he suggesting that, through these banal pleasantries, we avoid the deeper aspects of life until nothing remains but death? Or is our small talk a heartfelt attempt at humanity, to seek out shared values in the name of relating to others? After all, isn’t it good not to fear death?
In his observations, Darcy never actually tells us what to think; he simply focuses his lens — his window, if you will — on an idea, and lets us do the gazing. This is something worth observing, he seems to be saying, so if you want to see what the weather’s like for yourself, take a look, and then think about how it makes you feel.
So often in our world — in the media, in politics, even in art — we don’t get a window. We get overblown rhetoric, directives and impassioned hyperbole. Fear-mongering politicians that appropriate incendiary news reports of terrorism and violence as political fodder, using them to coin slogans like “Make America Great Again.”
There’s been a backlash, to be sure, both in the media and in the arts. In one of the most conspicuous countercharges, the newly formed Prophets of Rage, a supergroup comprised of members from Rage Against the Machine, Cypress Hill and Public Enemy, conceived the phrase “Make America Rage Again.” It’s an enticing idea, to fight fire with fire; or, in guitarist Tom Morello’s words, “to confront this mountain of election-year bullshit, and confront it head-on, with Marshall stacks blazing.”
But is rage really the best answer? In an excellent examination of Prophets of Rage’ message, The New Yorker’s Amanda Petrusich called this kind of “blustery, hyper-masculinized ire” too close to the institutions it’s raging against. She chided POR’s “pithy and platitudinous catchphrases” like “Power to the People” as vapid catch-alls. Whose power is going to which people? It may be inspiring on a visceral level, she conceded, but at the end of the day it doesn’t get to the dyed-in-the-wool issues that provide the foundation for real systemic injustice.
I mention this to Darcy. “From my personal perspective, if I were to say, ‘Power to the people,’ I would feel like, ‘Who am I to assign this power?’” he replies. “I really believe that if something is just purely pushing against something else, if it’s just pure negation, then that thing requires the thing that’s pushing against it to continue existing, and invariably ends up giving energy into that thing, legitimizing it in different ways.”
Some of Ought’s first music was inspired by pushback and looming injustice. During Darcy’s tenure at McGill, Quebecois universities were embroiled in controversy. The Quebec government had proposed an 82 percent increase in tuition rates, significantly undermining Canada’s policy for publicly provided higher education. In protest, more than 200,000 students, from McGill and various other schools, led boycotts, marches and strikes across the Canadian province.
The issue may seem relatively innocuous — or at least unstartlingly familiar — compared to some of the ruinous politics occurring stateside, but Darcy and his colleagues wisely saw the tuition hike as a precursor to broader social inequities. “As soon as you accept the inability of a few qualified students to attend university, you accept an entire ideology,” Darcy wrote in 2011 in the college’s student-run paper, The McGill Daily. The solution was not as simple as halting the increase in an act of pure negation, he understood; instead, as a community of students, they would have to look deeper and quash the ideology that gave birth to the hike in the first place — an ideology that Darcy felt stemmed from an underlying “fear of human connection.” He probed the value of community as an alternative to that fear.
“Community is not something you can walk away from, like a rally, because it fosters (indeed, it is dependent on) your agency within it,” he wrote. “Community is shared dirt and trees and buildings. Community is the kitchen, the radio station, the hardware store.”
Darcy tells me that Ought have been distancing themselves from their protest involvement because it’s begun to feel out of date (it was included on their very first press release). The student protests did inform the band’s first album, he says, but so did “a lot of normal youthful angst.” Still it’s worth noting that, even in 2011, Darcy was already observing politics through a quotidian lens. Our shared dirt and trees, the kitchen, the hardware store — all common ground. By using relatable language, he connected our emotions and shared experiences to an idea of community that is as applicable to life as it is to politics, and both deserve a deeper reading than they often get.
It should surprise no one, then, that Darcy is influenced by Bob Dylan’s songwriting, in which “the different layers of meaning have come into focus” over time. “I definitely remember being 16 with a song like ‘Blowin' in the Wind’ and loving the feeling of the words more than totally getting the context of when that song was written,” he says. “And I think that there’s something about that, that crossover about political music and passionate art. The thing that often makes something compelling, whether it’s a speech or visual art, is that element of passion or love that comes across, that kind of passion in the voice with whatever’s being talked about.”
I ask him to contextualize that thought amidst the support garnered by Donald Trump, for whom impassioned, rage-filled crowds are amassing all across America. “When I look at enthusiasm behind the Trump campaign, I see people gathering from a place of fear, that the world is collapsing and their jobs are being taken away and they’re disenfranchised.” Facts and the policies themselves, he says, are almost irrelevant. “The thing that actually draws people into this is emotion and feeling more than concrete political ideas … which even relates back to the Tom Morello thing. I liked Rage Against the Machine as a kid. It was by far the heaviest thing that I listened to, and it was more about how exciting the music sounded than, ‘I totally get what they’re singing about.’”
Prophets of Rage, like their forebears, are effective at reaching us on an emotional level, but their message doesn’t have those “different layers of meaning” to take us somewhere beyond emotion; as with Trump’s political caricature, the attraction to Morello’s new supergroup is entirely visceral.
Ought are currently on tour, playing a handful of North American dates while they begin work on their third record. The new music is in its nascent stages — Darcy won’t say much except that the band has been consulting a mood wheel — but he has begun writing and, as always, he’s been reading. Literary voices influence his songwriting, too. One book that often gets mentioned in connection with Ought is the 1985 novel White Noise, Don DeLillo’s prescient and still relevant masterstroke. “There is some overlap in what we all like to read, but that is the only time I can think of us all passing a book around so quickly,” Darcy tells me. One passage feels particularly germane to our conversation.
“Crowds came to form a shield against their own dying. To become a crowd is to keep out death,” says DeLillo’s protagonist, Jack Gladney, referencing the types of crowds that gathered around Hitler. “To break off from the crowd is to risk death as an individual, to face dying alone.”
These lines remind me of “Beautiful Blue Sky,” as well as a particular sentiment in Darcy’s McGill Daily piece: “We spend our lives in fear of rejection from the perceived amalgamated whole of the people around us.” In perhaps the most fractious election cycle of all time, Trump, who has been compared to Hitler more than once, has amassed one of the scariest crowds America has seen in decades. Divisive. Racist. Unprecedentedly misinformed. These crowds, these hulking masses who perceive themselves as America’s amalgamated whole, stand in opposition to Darcy’s idea of community, where people unite not just around emotion, but also around shared experiences and beliefs about human agency.
I read DeLillo’s lines to Darcy, making that comparison and asking him to comment. “I think there’s a negative draw versus a positive draw, and I don’t mean that purely as a judgment … I think it’s a pretty natural human instinct to want that feeling of connection,” he says. “But that act of breaking off from the mass, and the fear of dying and not having any kind of trace of your life … A fear of death can manifest in many different ways, and I think art is one trace of one’s life. If somebody loves someone’s music and loves seeing that person out there and doing amazing things, that is empowering, that’s power to the people: a gift of your energy, and that reciprocity that comes from the act of pure artistic experience.”
It’s this reciprocation — something Darcy calls a “feedback loop” — that’s so important, because therein lies the agency that necessitates community. It’s not based on fear or rage. It’s an awareness of the people around us and the many kinds of emotions that exist in this world. It’s an attempt at mitigating the distance between us and them, not spotlighting it. In Darcy’s words, it’s about “what actually lifts people up,” the milk of human kindness that comes in infinite fat percentages.
After dismissing Prophets of Rage’ intent to “Make America Rage Again” as a viable solution to these “mountains of election-year bullshit,” Petrusich concludes: “Such is the true challenge of insurrection: finding a means that doesn’t mimic your adversary’s.”
Maybe the means don’t have to be overtly political at all (Tim Darcy isn’t asking to be a torchbearer for political insurrection, anyway); maybe the means can be much simpler: thought and reflection. As Dylan showed with “Blowin' in the Wind,” the values of community and shared humanity can carry political weight, all under the relatable veil of wind and weather. And, judging from Trump’s sustained following despite his capricious persona and helter-skelter policies, thought and reflection are surely not the adversary’s means. The world simply doesn’t need more rage. It needs art and thought that searches for our common ground — the kitchen, the grocery store, the dirt beneath our feet. As such, under this beautiful blue sky, where one of the loftiest goals of a presidential campaign can be a “big beautiful wall,” Darcy’s window is more welcome than ever. Because all we have left is each other, and the fact that we are all human should be more than enough. Think about that.