Over the years NoFX have, along with increasingly blistering social and political commentary and their fair share of juvenile humour, featured a darker, often more personal, streak than many other bands who grew out the 1980s California punk rock scene.
This now seems to have reached its peak with You’re Welcome, a new album from the band’s frontman and leader Fat Mike, under the name of Cokie The Clown (an alter-ego who first appeared at a notorious SXSW live show a few years ago and as the title track of a subsequent NoFX EP).
From the off, a semi-spoken word affair with a disjointed piano called Bathtub, apparently recorded in Fat Mike’s kitchen at three in the morning and recalling an attempted suicide of a friend, lover or spouse, its clear this is far removed from anything NoFX have done.
From there Mike and a varied cast of musicians, including Blink-182’s Travis Barker and Nine Ince Nails’ Danny Lohner (who also co-produced with Mike), weaves a path through some of the darkest and most bleak confessional songwriting I can recall hearing anywhere.
Cokie is himself addressed as a drug addled alter-ego of Mike, being the class clown of the scene NoFX arguably led for so many years — if you’ve seen the band’s Backstage Passport documentaries you might get some idea of this. But what this really does is explore why Mike might have this other side.
In this then it’s almost like listening to a musical therapy session for someone with a serious addiction driven by a kind of post traumatic stress disorder and what might have caused that. Of course this supposes that the subject matter is true but, knowing the very nature of Fat Mike’s other work at no point did I suspect otherwise and this makes it all the more effecting.
So across the record we get songs about suicide (not just Bathtub but Swing And A Miss, and possibly The Queen Is Dead), divorce (both his own and his parents on Fair Leather Friends, Pre-Arranged Marriage and Punk Rock Saved My Life) and then on Negative Reel Mike’s own mental state in the middle of all of this.
In all of this You’re Welcome is, in its way, a concept album as it takes us on a journey to and through rock bottom, but within this downbeat bleakness, which comes not just from the lyrical content but the music as well, there are slivers of hope.
Musically the album could fall into what gets lumped together as ‘folk punk’ though I’m not sure that really does it justice as each track really is its own thing and spans the aforementioned sparse piano to something approaching NoFX’s kind of sound through acoustic numbers to songs based around instruments as traditionally ‘un-punk’ as cellos, clarinets and French horns.
Back to the slivers of hope though as they really are what make this album in anyway digestible and not just the aforementioned therapy session.
The Queen Is Dead shows the first as, rather like in Frank Turner’s Long Live The Queen, it looks at the death of someone who was a key component of the punk rock scene of which Mike is a part and begins to show the suggestions of a music scene as a family.
This then reaches its climax on the final track of the album, Punk Rock Saved My Life, as Mike further explores the idea of the punk scene and NoFX in particular as a family (albeit I’d suspect a slightly dysfunctional one).
It does bring the album to a close on a more positive note that, even through everything else, music can provide the people and support you might need to survive (though this simplifies things and certainly the album doesn’t go for a simply black and white approach).
While I may not be listening to You’re Welcome on a regular basis or putting it on to cheer myself up (though I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t dark humour in here), there’s no denying the craft behind it as it manages to sit just the right side of total self-indulgence and tackles mental health issues head on in a way that can only be admired (a little like Ginger Wildheart did on Ghost In The Tanglewood or The Pessimist’s Companion, albeit in a rather different style) while also managing to celebrate the positivity and life that can be found through music, and specifically punk rock.