At this point, nearly 30 years and 12 albums in, you likely know what you're getting from a NOFX record. The pop-punk stalwarts have been ripping out sneering, ironic but hook-filled records for long enough now that we know the formula. With the exception of the slower, moodier layers of Heavy Petting Zoo in 1996, NOFX has given us a line of records that don't sound exactly the same, necessarily, but they don't exactly surprise either.
That's not to say the formula is tired, far from it. What keeps it fresh is the amazing musicianship on these records, from Fat Mike's intricate bass rundowns to the interplay of guitars from El Hefe and Eric Melvin to Erik Sandin's precise, propulsive drumming. To that end, Self-Entitled, the band's new record, is their freshest sounding record in years. It's the most musically intricate and suprising (and not to mention satisfying) record since their epic one-song EP, The Decline. Opener "72 Hookers" throws down the gauntlet with breakneck speed and slicing riffs, and a bass line that rips the closing blast of the song wide open. "I Believe In Goddess" digs into grimy, low-note hooks, while "Ronnie & Mags" slows things down with sliding chords, but manages to sound just as punchy as it's quicker counterparts on the record.
The music here is more consistent than on the band's last album, Coaster, and while the disc clocks in under 30 minutes it feels totally satisfying on a pure hook level. The band sounds both energize and pissed off, and the combination can be impressive, especially when they channel fellow punk veterans Bad Religion on the blistering speed and dark mood of "She Didn't Lose Her Baby" and "Down With the Ship." In these moments, Self-Entitled feels purposed and focused though not self-serious.
Lyrically, the album is -- like many of the band's albums -- all over the map, from political screeds to inside jokes to not-so-inside jokes to tunes about personal politics and so on. The album hits home with some of its overt political songs, even on the dated power-trip of the anti-Reagan "Ronnie & Mags" (which shows a destructive cronyism that sounds sadly of the moment). "This Machine is 4" and "Down With the Ship" take carefully aimed shots at authority that mix vitriol with empathy for the trod-upon citizens under that authority. The funnier moments here don't work quite as well, since they seem to lack that empathy. Where NOFX used to send up their targets on funny songs (especially punk culture itself) the jokes here seem all too dismissive, like on "72 Hookers" where Fat Mike assures us if terrorists get laid they won't attack ("When everyone is getting blow jobs," he tells us. "That's when we'll finally have world peace"). And "My Sychophantic Others" just feels too insular, as Mike cuts down yes men around him and we are, somehow, to understand his frustration.
The best moments on this album actually feel personal. "Secret Society" is an ode to the BDSM community, of which Fat Mike is a member and advocate, and though it surely plays, on one level, with the humor of discomfort, it's also a clear declaration of his lifestyle, and the freedom in that assertion rings out. "I've Got One Jealous Again, Again" is another great personal moment, which finds Fat Mike (who did recently divorce) splitting up his record collection, and while it might make you chuckle, it's also awfully bittersweet. To hear him talk about labeling his record sleeves with his name because "that was a union I wasn't willing to risk" is to hear him at his most revealing, and the music behind him is appropriately dark yet resolved, pushing forward in its heartworn trudge.
All this makes Self-Entitled the most energetic NOFX record in a while, but one that still ends up a bit uneven. This long into the game, the fact that they can hit us with new riffs, and great new songs to put them in, is awfully impressive, though they still can't shake the penchant for hiding behind a few jokes here and there, which keeps this good record from being great.