On their fourth full-length, Tough Age act as both patient and therapist with trademark humour, cynicism, and thrilling musical chops.
There are a number of dichotomies at play on Tough Age’s fourth album, Which Way Am I?, that I’m still working out. The band members feel like a tight unit who also want to expand their sound; the album’s first half identifies themes of worthlessness and failure, raging against them only to find a place of (perhaps frustrated) acceptance in the second half; the first half vibrates with 70s punk energy, while the second half leans into longer instrumental breaks and even brings in — for the first time in the band’s history — a flute. Perhaps Tough Age has taken its cue from Doomsquad.
Whenever someone spends enough time being introspective, the product is usually recognizing your failures while being unable to do anything about them. “Desire?” nails this feeling with lines like, “See the patterns in yourself, repeat them just the same.” But, the song also reflects the need to change your habits. “Quit making plans for yourself/Why not lead the way?”, asks vocalist Jarrett Evan Samson. Self-discovery may also lead to an inferiority complex, as noted in the all-guns-blazing opener “Self-Confidence.” After a furious guitar onslaught, Samson makes a grand first line and then immediately undercuts it: “Here we are, back on track/Anyone still looking?” No two lines more accurately sum up what a band must feel when it releases a new album in our current money-starved, streaming-centric music climate. With a song title like “My Life’s A Joke & I’m Throwing It Away”, I probably don’t need to explain that self-discovery can lead to dark ideas too.
There can be a fun side to knowing more about yourself. “Penny Current Suppression Ring” is led by Penny Clark on vocals, who mercilessly makes fun of Samson’s obsession with New Zealand by singing “I wanna get signed to Flying Nun,” in the song’s chorus. Is there anything more punk than making fun of your own bandmate on an album? The song’s final two words are repeated often and link back to the music-industry cynicism of “Self-Confidence”: “consider me.”
After the excellently named and deliciously riffy “Anti-Anxiety Exercises,” Which Way Am I? begins to slow down in tempo and allows for more lyric-less, meditative stretches of music. “Mathers Ave” is an instrumental three minutes of tender chords and whirling synths; “Possession” adds a new dimension with the aforementioned flute by Claire Paquet. The key phrase to understand the album’s latter half is the last of Clark’s three songs on vocals, “Repose.” The hook that permeates the song is three utterly relatable words: “Meanwhile I’m tired.”
All this emotional messiness does not change how incredibly thrilling Which Way Am I? is on the musical side. Samson’s guitar and Clark’s bass are in such harmony with each other that it’s hard to identify where one ends and the other begins. Jesse Locke’s percussion is their solid anchor, but he’s also the third head of the aggressive and world-weary Cerberus that is this band. Which way is Tough Age? That’s for them to know. Which way are you? Find out with this album as your accompaniment.