RUFF is the Born Ruffians fourth album and it documents a band channeling through the refusal, frustration, unrest and even some acceptance of becoming just another middling rock band. You never thought life as mid-level rock stars could be so rough, but Born Ruffians deliver a convincing tale, one that is confused and wandering, cynical and drained, but altogether, still giddy enough for the band’s familiar carefree and upbeat arrangements.
The Born Ruffians formed over 10 years ago, as teenagers back in 2004, and many of their early songs wrestled with the anxiousness of acceptance, the desire to be somebody. On “This Sentence Will Ruin/ Save Your Life,” the first track on Born Ruffians’ 2006 self-titled debut EP, Ruffians’ frontman Luke Lalonde twitchily fires off a parade of life goals, outlooks and demands, anxiously beginning the track, “I need to know who I am/ I need to know what I’m going to do while on earth.” The track is an honest, charged anthem capturing the search for identity that accompanies the often overwhelming transition from adolescence to adulthood. It was a fitting piece for the then teenagers, but on 2015’s RUFF, the desire for satisfaction and identity is still very present, if not more desperate than it ever has been.
RUFF lead single “We Made It” could have been on 2010’s Say It or 2013’s Birthmarks. On it, Lalonde chronicles a young band’s promising and naive beginning in the music industry. Between signing a record deal and flirting with being a big deal, the song focuses on none of the fulfillment from the band’s previous accomplishments. Instead, it is still aimed at hope for the future, dreaming of making it as a band, as Lalonde sings, “One day, we’re gonna make it/ Fake it until we make it/ We’ve got the rest of our lives/ This is the first day of it, it’s all fine.” Have the Born Ruffians ever made it? Yes and no. But, if the band themselves still aren’t satisfied with their modest success, there is no choice but to reignite and power behind the same dream they’ve always had, no matter how tiring it has become.
Though often disheartening, the confusion, self-doubt and despair found on RUFF is by no means disingenuous. The slow-burning “Fuck Feelings” offers a more poignant chorus than you would ever expect from a title like that: “Fuck ‘no hard feelings’/ All I got is hard feelings, you know/ Get so emotional after you go.” The catchy and striving “& On & On & On” does find a way to shed some light through the endless cycle of good and bad, as Lalonde puts it, “I’m not a good man, but I try so hard, I try so hard to be one.” The beautifully minimal and raw “Don’t Worry Now” is a welcome shift towards optimism on RUFF, though, and maybe symbolically, clocks in at just 80 seconds and only consists of the three title words.
As lost and tangled as the life journey can be, one eventually needs to settle on some resolve if only to get to sleep every once and awhile. Album closer “Shade to Shade” is RUFF’s resolve by default and may be the best track on the album. Instrumentally, the song is brightly paced, soaring and hopeful. Lyrically, Lalonde is as confused and directionless as ever: convincingly coming off as a man that doesn’t want to sing in a band anymore, doesn’t need anyone anymore, doesn’t want to be himself— only wishes to disappear into nothing, nowhere, shade to shade.
The Born Ruffians may just be another band in the middle, but their musical hopes and dreams are on the floor. RUFF is the darkest and most serious album the Canadian quartet has put out yet. They may filter the material through fun and catchy melodies but there is a lot of desperation in these songs. RUFF documents a band that is barely hanging on to the reason that made them pick up instruments in the first place. But, in the case of RUFF, sometimes the deepest struggles and despair create the substance that makes you great, that points the way.