Midway through Ought’s song “Around Again,” the music falls away from lead singer Tim Darcy. "Why is it that you can't stare into the sun but you can stick your head into a bucket of water and breathe in deep?” he asks in a spoken-word monotone before his guitar chimes back in, sour and needly. The rhythm section rolls over and buries him. The image he’s drummed up could be a man drowning his own head like a sack of kittens. It could also be a baptism. When you’re the one getting dunked, sacrament and suffocation might not feel that different.
There’s water coursing through Darcy’s new solo album, Saturday Night, too, though it doesn’t sound much like the band he formed in Montreal in 2012. Since releasing their debut album in 2014, Ought have found acclaim for their dry wit and agile post-punk guitar work. Their two LPs came loaded with ironic social commentary; on More Than Any Other Day, Darcy tried to pry apart the mundanity of daily routines to get at the secret joys hidden within. On 2015's Sun Coming Down, he made small talk with the neighbors and then abruptly declared that he's not afraid to die “because that is all that I have left.”
Darcy's delivery is consistently arch across Ought songs. On record, he sings and speaks in an accent he doesn’t have when we talk on the phone. He’s from Arizona, but he sounds like he’s scraped up mannerisms from across the globe: England, Australia, Canada. Saturday Night softens Darcy’s affect. Instead of speaking through personas, he’s speaking, more or less, as himself.
“In the heat of the moment, if a song is energetic, it's feeling really good, it can be easy sometimes to slip into a character that could suit that moment,” Darcy tells me from Toronto, where he’s staying briefly before setting out on tour. “With personal writing, there is that extreme intimacy at times of sharing something very personal that's also very cathartic. Obviously the lines are blurred and I have personal threads that get woven into Ought songs as well — but with my songwriting, it's more wholly cut from my cloth.”
Several of the songs on Saturday Night predate Ought entirely, though they were all recorded around the same time Darcy was tracking Sun Coming Down with the band. He worked on the Ought record in Montreal, then shipped off to Toronto to lay tape for his solo album. The distance between the cities helped him keep the work separate; he says there’s barely any overlap between his own songs and the music he writes collaboratively with Ought. The writing takes different shapes, and little of it is interchangeable between projects.
If the characters Darcy plays on Ought’s albums are sarcastic and cutting, the singer under his own name finds the courage to be gentle, yearning, open. Songs like “Still Waking Up” play like love ballads for a narrowly missed connection, a dream about someone who’s not there sleeping next to you. That song’s video sees Darcy serenading a woman with an acoustic guitar beneath her window; unwooed, she draws the shade and ignores him. There’s still humor to be found in moments like these, when the romantic sentiment overwhelms the bones of the song. “That song is bursting a little bit as far as being a little bit ... roses,” Darcy says. "A little romance-y.” But the comedy takes a kind tone. He’s mostly laughing at himself.
Tongue in cheek or not, the role of balladeer suits Darcy. He sings here like he's never sung in Ought, leaning into and swinging around melodies, always pushing for one more kink or warble. (That transatlantic accent persists.) He’s not a lone voice anymore, either. Harmonizing with him across Saturday Night is Charlotte Cornfield, who also plays drums on the LP and on tour with Darcy. They’d known each other in Montreal, but they didn’t start working together until Darcy asked her to work on the album and she said she’d already been telling her friends about how she was hoping to play drums for him. “That was just super kismet,” he says.
On the album’s moodier songs, like the title track and the instrumental closer “Beyond Me," Darcy plays bowed guitar for the first time. "I bought the cheapest bow I could find and tried it once and it ended up being part of the record that felt so perfect,” he says. These songs, along with the reverb-heavy “Found My Limit," jettison the energy that kicks off the album with “Tall Glass of Water.” Kick drums and clipped downstrokes bleed out into plaintive fingerpicking, unveiling the melancholy behind Darcy’s midcentury rock poses.
“Found My Limit” offers more water imagery, following up on the river that runs through “Tall Glass of Water": “Well, I think I have finally found my limit / And if it was deep enough / I would swim in it.” Darcy sounds lost in the fog, like the laughter’s worn off and the curious solitude of “Still Waking Up" has fermented into pure loneliness.
All that water (stuff of baptisms and world-ending floods), along with references to Saint Germain and Joan of Arc, cast something of a Catholic glow on the album. Darcy says this is mostly the result of growing up in an Irish family — those are the images he inherited. As a child, when he was too scared to sleep, his mother told him to envision purple fire burning up his bad thoughts. That ritual took the form of a lullaby, which makes up the coda of his song “Saint Germain.” Instead of erasing frightening images from a horror movie, though, he’s evacuating heartbreak from his psyche: "Covered in the violet flame of Saint Germain, I forgot your name / Covered in the violet flame of Saint Germain, I rid myself of pain."
"I'm not a religious person. I never went to church or anything like that,” he tells me. "I would definitely say that I'm a spiritual person. This is a very millennial thing to say, but I've taken inspiration from lots of different faith-based writings. For me, it's more about how I think about the interconnectedness of people. I think that can be essentialized as directly as ‘love’ or ‘spirit’ or something like that.”
Saturday Night toys with the tension that can exist between the ideas of romantic love for one person and universal love for all people, and how the lack of the former can make you feel like you’re bereft of the latter, too. "I think they're connected at the root, as far as being part of the same spirit,” Darcy says. "To write a song about romantic love, I think it doesn't exclude universal love and vice versa.”
Sometimes, the heartbreak of losing individual love can even propel you into accepting collective love. "I get it, you dig the way the window sheds the rain when you look through it,” Darcy sings on “What’d You Release?” “But there’s a pain beyond that glass that you only get rid of when you’re wet to the bone.” Here he is, shedding his shelter, dunking his head again, because this time he knows he won’t drown.