It’s a fair question to wonder why, at this juncture in their career, NOFX would release a live album. It’s not even their first one. 1995’s I Heard They Suck Live was just as random a release, but it seemed like a rite of passage, and not a bad time in pop-punk history to be releasing a disc with some of your best stuff on it.
Of course, to question the release of a live disc now would assume that you thought there was an answer. And there really isn’t. The same way there’s no reason for the year of seven inches they started in ‘05, since they served as a warm-up for the phoned-in Wolves in Wolves’ Clothing album. The strange release decisions, coupled with sporadic touring—and an increasingly careless show—make NOFX look like a band that could care less.
And, sure, they’ve always looked like they could care less. That was their schtick. At their height, they were the tightest pop-punk band going, with smart and catchy songs, but they were smart enough to send up punk rock and fill their sets and albums with heavy doses of self-mocking. On great albums like Punk in Drublic, the band managed to bolster punk rock by calling it out. But it seems since The War on Errorism, where they began their battle against Bush, that NOFX has stopped kidding the scene to rail on the Administration. And it’s made them into the self-serious punk band they used to mock.
Nowhere is this more evident than on They’ve Actually Gotten Worse Live!. Fat Mike tells the crowd that they are wrong if they believe in God—any God—before launching into the too didactic to be funny “You’re Wrong”. He accuses fans of knocking over his pretentious drinks. He insults fans left and right. And while this all seems pretty in line with the history of punk rock shows, somewhere along the line this stopped being a schtick for the band. They’ve become full-on contrarians.
If their contrary nature was reserved purely for Washington fat cats, it might still be irritating, but at least it would tolerable. But instead, the band has turned on their fan base, crafting a setlist full of toss-off songs and avoiding most anything you could call a hit or a fan favorite. In the middle of the set, they play six songs in eight minutes, and while it is one of their most energetic moments in the set, it’s also pure gimmick, an act that seems more like them avoiding inevitable boredom than like a band putting on a show. And it is too bad because at their best on this record—and that is usually when they play old songs like “Lori Meyers” or “Green Corn”—they come with the energy that made them such a vital punk band to begin with. They even speed up the old acoustic number “Scavenger Type” and slow down the new “Beat of an Indifferent Drum” to make it a dub number and those experiments work. They even open with “Glass War”, a song that is one of the best they’ve written this decade and was inexplicably left off of The War on Errorism. Those are the best moments on the disc because they’re the moments when they realize how tight a band they can be.
But that realization is short lived. The album ends when they come out for their encore and launch into their 18-minute epic—and finest hour on record—“The Decline” and the crowd goes nuts. And as a fan of the band, most listeners of the disc would too. But as the song just gets going, the track fades out into silence and guess what? The joke’s on you again, NOFX fan. The band you’ve been following for five or ten or 20 years has given you a disc with some good performances, but not enough to make you think they care anymore.
Years ago, when they poked fun at punk rock, the fans were always in on the joke too. They were a band in a scene that takes itself too seriously telling you it was okay to let your guard down, make fun of your own mohawk or leather pants. But now, apparently, they’ve risen above their audience, and this whole set is rife with snotty condescension, the kind of condescension that they often accuse Republicans and right-wing Christians of. Maybe it’s still an act, still a persona they reserve for the stage, and maybe they’re not really assholes and its just another big joke.
Well, if that is true, then maybe the joke just isn’t funny anymore.