NOFX - First Ditch Effort (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick


First Ditch Effort (2016)

Fat wreck chords

First Ditch Effort might be NOFX’s most intellectual album. No doubt, the band has approached their topics with tactical thoughtfulness before- you need look no further than “My Orphan Year” or “Longest Line” for that- but there are two threads running through First Ditch Effort that not only tie the release together with an artesian cohesion, but they work together to pull the album into a sort of epiphany.

NOFX was born at the end of the golden age of punk, became famous during the 90s punk boom, and sustained themselves through the 00s while many compatriots withered away. In part, it always seemed like their endurance was because they were just a few years older than their fellow ‘90s punkers, and their earlier years in punk, during the genre’s most dangerous era, had prepped them for success and dry spells, to a degree.

And so, at First Ditch Effort’s onset, NOFX brings to the forefront what has always remained in the background. For most of their career, NOFX has felt like a “current” act instead of a “legacy” act, and so, throughout their releases, they seemed to constantly be juggling the early punk virtues with punk’s modern mandates. “6 Years on Dope” makes this clear. Set to an almost Dangerhouse stomping beat, Eric Melvin and Fat Mike yell and bark over the tune’s 90 seconds. At first it seems like it’s an homage to early West Coast nihilism like “Solitary Confinement” or “Nothing Means Nothing Anymore,” until you peel back the lyrics and find that Eric Melvin and Mike are purposefully trying to work their way out of self-destruction. That the band masks the message of hope in the early clanging sounds of “I wanna die!” style hardcore exemplifies what you need to know.

It’s a pretty clever spin, which the band uses to great effect throughout the album. “Happy Father’s Day” is set to a Minor Threat style charge while Fat Mike screams at his own dad, “I’m glad that you are dead” and then declares his intent to end the family name. Whoa! But then, on “Transvest-lite” Mike measures early hardcore’s disdain for the feminine against modern punk’s more gender/sexuality inclusive nature. Of course, he does it through the band’s trademark humor which is still pretty damn sharp, “It’s hard to tell bros that you wear women’s clothes even in the open minded punk scene.”

Punk’s message and ethics has changed profoundly over the past 30 years, and NOFX finds a way to merge the tenets of both eras without necessarily spitting on either. Maybe because the band has survived through those eras, the band is able to hold onto the connecting rope.

The release’s other main thread is Fat Mike’s newfound sobriety. Although he was using heavily during the album’s recording, it seems that even then, Mike had in the back of his head that it was time to give up the weasel powder, pills, and God knows what else. It’s a daring turn for Mike to take, especially since the past 15 years or so, he’s made it his mission to be the unrepentant, drug using, fuck-you-all punk rocker. In fact, in the band’s recent book, one of the NOFX members stated that Mike said he wanted to be the modern Darby Crash or GG Allin, without recognizing that both of those guys are dead.

So, what does he do now that he’s realized its time to clean up his act before he clocks out? Mike wrestles with the issue of being a traitor to his own self-generated cause on “I don’t like me anymore.” It would be easy for the band to make this an overly sappy or downcast affair. But, much like “6 Years on Dope,” the band places their heartbreaking lyrics overtop a charging, classic punk snap. The fact is, the strategy makes the song moving instead of maudlin. Moreso, Mike’s directness, such as “I turn on the TV and I don’t like what I see, there’s an old punk rocker acting like a jerk and that jerk looks a lot like me,” shows that he’s not re-writing history or downplaying his turn, and most importantly, it shows that he’s not asking for sympathy. It’s a testament to Mike’s skill as a lyricist that he can plead his case without demeaning his earlier songs. What has always been most prevalent in NOFX lyrics is their honesty, and that’s what carries the day here.

Similarly, the album ends on two heartwrenchers, one at the micro scale and one at the macro. “I’m so sorry, Tony” starts with an acoustic intro, and just as the song threatens to fall into corniness, the band saves the day and pays proper tribute to Tony Sly by rocking the hell out. Meanwhile, Mike, instead of offering platitudes or overwrought constructs, simply says why he misses his friend and whimpers “I’m sorry that I wasn’t there for you in the end/ I was there when you needed a eulogy but not when you needed a friend.” Bare honesty is the key here and the band uses it deftly.

Likewise, the band closes the album with “Generation Z,” where they mourn the fact that the destruction of Earth is much closer than we may think, and we are to blame for this whole mess. And, just as “6 Years on Dope,” is essentially a song of hope, “Generation Z” tries to find a single ray of hope in the encroaching darkness that is 2016. Tellingly, the track ends with an almost Crass-like sound collage, featuring Sidra Hitching ranting about the world’s destruction. As a nice touch, Mike’s daughter and Tony Sly’s daughter provide backup vocals.

Many early punk tunes had the message “there is no hope.” The response to that came from the DC bands that replied, “there is hope.” Just as NOFX wrestle with which side of the punk divide they are on, the old or the new, they wrestle with this very same question on the album’s closing moments. They don’t provide an answer, but that’s not a result of indifference or callousness. Rather, moreso than ever before, NOFX are pondering their actions and moving in ways with an intended result instead of just rolling around and see where the road takes them. This album shows that newfound purpose, and more importantly, it shows that NOFX is still NOFX no matter if they embrace the ‘76 or ’16 punk mentality and that they are that much better because of it.