The punk band Screeching Weasel's 1999 album Emo, while not as catchy and "sing along" as other fan favorites like My Brain Hurts (1992) or Anthem for a New Tomorrow (1993) (I am partial to 1994's How to make Enemies and Irritate People), is arguably the band's1 best and most mature work in both lyrics and songwriting (yeah, I know it's still a punk band).
Still very pop punk (despite Ben's claim that "the songs are all in the Crimpshrine/Jawbreaker/Husker Du vein we've touched on before"), the album has a deliberate raw immediacy, musically, and is lyrically honest.
Following yet another breakup and short stint as The Riverdales, SW signed with Fat Mike's (NOFX) label Fat Wreck Chords (this was after years with Lookout! Records, a relationship renewed later when they distributed the band's records released on their own label). It resulted in the release of the very poppy Bark Like a Dog (1996)2 and the good, butwith a few exceptionsunremarkable Televison City Dream (1998).
After Leaving Fat, they released the EP Major Label Debut (1998)3 on Ben and Jughead's Panic Button label (the reason they left Fat was to give a "name" and credibility to the new label). It was short, fast, catchy, and goodjust like punk should be. Some fans were divided. But they would be even more divided when Emo came out the next year.
The album was recorded in Chicago (where Ben lives) during the "Blizzard of '99." Two of the members took eleven hours to make the 120 mile trip to his apartment where they had to dig out a parking place. Skipping rehearsals, they were given a tape of Ben singing and playing the songs solo in his living room for reference. For the album, he ended up returning to playing guitar in the band (since Bark Like a Dog) because the second guitarist had returned to college.
They would listen to the tape, run through the song a few times and then record it live in the studio (intentionally, as Ben wanted that "live" feeling on the recording). They kept the best takes and then he laid down vocal tracks while listening to the music on the studio speakers. This made for a "messier" production quality (as opposed to the very crisp, "clean" sound of Bark Like a Dog), but comes off very well. You are there with the band as they are playing. It fits with the material.
While the title hints at the well-known genre of punk, this is not an "emo" record. That said, it also sort of is. At heart, emo is supposed to be about emotional things (though sometimes, in practice, this ends up being whining about lost girlfriends and teenage angst) and Emo certainly is. Full of realizations about life, the album examines the patient who is Ben Foster. It's Ben coming to terms with things about his life and chosen career (despite the "for good" breakup in 2001 and his interest in writing books, there is no plan to stop recordingonly as SW). What also helps is that he's not just out of the teenage years and has an older perspective (he was in junior high in 1980). Also that he has had a long (and prolific) career as a punkthe band having formed in 1986. This led to the more mature lyrical sensibility of the album.
The twelve songs begin with "Acknowledge," which is what it is about. In it "I" (who, without need for implication, is Ben), has come to "acknowledge the fact of my life" and realizes he cannot continue living apart from the world and "pretending that I don't give a shit." He had found that "there was guilt and shame, there was and fear and hate" before coming to terms with his relation to the world. He then says something few punks would admit to: "I appreciate the simple beauty of the world." "The meaning of life is life itself" and he realizes that the thing that has held him back from that realization is himself, that he has to "get out of my own way."
Following the first song are two with a harder edge. "Sidewalk Warrior," about the futility of conflict (particularly personal), especially about seemingly petty things and "[keeping] score" over a game with "primitive rules." He thinks "things have become insane when all you'll fight for is a piece of sidewalk" and asks "do you look back and count victories when things start feeling hopeless? It's hard to believe." The third is "Static," which gives the sense of the protagonist of the song (possibly Ben in light of his life and events of the timemore later) who is falling apart in all the "static" of lifesociety and culture implicatedleading one "crawling for the safety of your bed." That "if I see another crack I think I'm gonna crack 'cause I can't go on."
The fourth song, "The Scene," is his manifesto on himself as Ben Weasel, punk rocker. Anthem for a New Tomorrow's "A New Tomorrow" is another manifesto, but for punk in general with backup vocals from other people in the punk community. "The Scene" has no other voices and is mostly his guitar playing the chord progression until near the end (there is a bass, too, but the guitar is way up in the mix). He sees what he is and who he has become. Again he acknowledges that he is here and alive, "not by choice but by birth" and that despite "doubting my own worth" he has become a "permanent part of this society" (though acknowledging that his choices have also led him to where he is).
Having "arrived here by way of dirty looks and rejection and head scratching shrinks and frustrated parents and teachers," he also is aware that he isn't the first to have done so, nor will he be the last. There will always be another punk to come along. But he is satisfied with thisnot "proud" or "ashamed"it's his lot in life and while others can "afford to laugh," he can't because it's all he has but "it's good enough for me." He continues his defiance by asserting that he will (continue) to follow his own rules that brought him here: "My own world, my own rules, my own world."
"Let Go" is about the confusion and apprehension of the future, the unknown, "too many paths to choose from; so many already gone." These fears build up and leave one feeling almost helpless at the hands of the universe, "choices that come back to haunt me," "seeing nothing but emptiness for years." But there is an out. He realizes that he must "let go" and "experience the joy of life; a simple smile," giving the advice that one should "stand and walk. See things as new" because then "you've just begun to change the world." With similarities to song one, this shows the darkness of the journey to the point where he can "acknowledge."
Next is "Regroup," where he realizes that it's far too easy to criticize and do nothing. What can he do to "ease the suffering and pain" in the world and will any attempts to speak out be "drowned out by all the noise made by those who will profit from the peddling of comfortability"? He sees that he must "regroup" and start living those words. He has to "clean up my own backyard" because it is "up to me," not someone else.
That is followed by "Passion." He realizes that he needs "passion, emotion" and "action, devotion." He also realizes, again, that the thing that most holds him back from this (not "Warner Brothers" or the "government") lies within: "I have seen the enemyhe looks an awful lot like me." He has to follow that passion and not worry about "trying to look cool" or "acting like a fool." This is the only way he can make a "difference in the world" and to not "live a lie."
The next song is a (surprising) cover of the 1993 song "Linger" by the Cranberries. Though it's got a strong guitar sound it's not overpowering and manages to be an honest cover and seriously earnestnot a matter of "punkifying" some pop song for fun. And though his voice is hardly suited for the sadness, loss, and regret that the song requires, he sings it without a hint of irony or cynicism.
That leads into the album's downward spiral through fear, anger, loss, and finally a form of madness (and possible stability on his terms). "Last Night" is the gateway to that descent (full lyrics as written, not sung):
Where were you last night when I needed you just to be around me for a while? Last night. The worms crawled in, the worms crawled out, they tap-danced on my snout like I'd already died. Last night. Buildings crumbled to the ground, the sky was falling down and I was going down for the last time. Last night.
Things fall apart. Loneliness and abandonment and losing control.
Then "2-7 Split" follows the "night" into the questions of disintegration of a relationship (which might reflect contemporary events in his life). He wonders why they can't try one more time despite "accusations" from both sides (and being "so fucking unhappy being together"). There is confusion, seen in his declaration that "I am alonethis city's mine." He is faced with the knowledge that he is partly responsible ("is my existence just a force of habit?" and the "revolution"whether it represents love or his life in general or something else, it seems to be of a personal naturethat is coming is a "lost cause") and that there's nothing he can do.
He thinks that it might be another failing. He tries "like a catcher in the rye but my arms are not big enough to catch you when you're falling" (implying a shared responsibility). Later it becomes "I can't stop either of us from destroying ourselves." Yet he admits that though "maybe I should kick you like a drug," "all that I know for sure is that I love you with all my heart." But in the end he's left with more loss and frustration asking if "she" knows that "the sun is rising for you. Do you feel it?" It doesn't seem to be for him.
"On My Own" is a self-assessment of his life, looking back on the angry and rebellious days of the past with "fists clenched," when "alcohol and sedatives kept it all at bay." He found no God or twelve-step program (echoing the first verse of "A New Tomorrow") that helped and rejected whatever didn't. Realizing that he is responsible for what he has become ("my own sick and damaged heart"), that he needs to look at himself"especially all those things that I don't wanna see"and without shame "face reality." And reality includes "hate and love and rage and pain." He also, contrary to the suggestion of the title seems to realize that hedespite all the defiance and self-sufficiency he's discussing in the songsisn't able to do this on his own. He sees that "everything is interconnected" and decides to remain here with "you." What can keep things at bay can be "the power of love and the power of soul." Though it might be the "self-preservation" he needs to free himself of.
The final song, "Bark Like a Dog," has nothing to do with the album of the same name, lyrically or musically. It is a harsh look at himself (and how others see him), as well as more angry defiance that turns into (not entirely free of being self-indulgence) ranting at the end.5 The music reflects it and is hard and abrasive.
"They say that I'm insane," "that crazy Weasel never leaves his house, "he's total wacked." Some of the problems people have with him are because of his personality. He was highly critical in his Maximum Rock and Roll column, took crowd-baiting to an art form, then decided to discontinue touring for good (telling the fans that purchasing his album gave him no obligation to perform for them)4. For a short time he would answer questions on the message board at the official unofficial SW site (www.screechingweasel.com). He generally refused to discuss music, preferring to insult the inane (and occasionally honest) questions and preferring to talk about baseball or hockey. Though it was a friendly ribbing (he produced the album), the Queers song "Ben Weasel" (featuring "Ben Weasel, he's an asshole, Ben Weasel, he's a jerk") is not without a basis in reality.
But he has had relationship and financial problems throughout his life, both hitting him around the time the album was recorded. He was also trying to quit smoking again and the untimely death of the former drummer for the Queers hit a lot of the punk community pretty hard. His history of psychological problems, while not serious, also exacerbated things. All these things came to a head on Emo. He's "had my fill." He will only be true to himself, "hang out in places worth my time" and "love the people worth my fucking time." He asks "are you worth my fucking time?"
He goes into (with distorted vocals) his rant railing at the people who told him what to think and how to feel (angry enough to gloss over his part in it that comes through in the other songs). He tries to "see the sunshine through the clouds, stand in the rain and rejoice" but this "world is bullshit." He says he doesn't "know what I am but I know what I'm not." Continually saying he is "all right" but also just wants to "eat, drink and fuck."
Perhaps this all functions as a catharsis and he finally, in his anger, really believes he will be all right. The journey from "acknowledgment" to a sense of place in the world. That "simple beauty of the world" is not as simple as it seemsas he says "cheap, easy answers kill"but it can be arrived at through a process. The album charts his attempt at that process.
From the liner notes (dropped the all-caps):
Yeah, I'm a shitty guitarist. Can't sing too great either. Fuck it. Low budget, a little loosewhat do I care? It's the best record I've ever played on; best tunes I've written. It's Screeching Weasel whether the yappers like it or not. "The kids are gonna hate it." Fuck 'em. This is for the people who Get It and who always have. It's real + they'll know it + all the poor sales charts + pitifully small royalty checks + fan bitching + moaning in the world can't change that.
Of course, it is really a snapshot in the life of the songwriter. There was no continuation of the themes on Emo, the cynicism and sarcasm returned and more typical SW songs appeared. Following a double album of unreleased songs, demos, and miscellaneous (including a full live show) in early 2000, they released their final album later that year. I found it a disappointment. Not because it wasn't Emo II (I didn't want that), it just seemed to be going through the motions. It seemed to lack the passion and care of earlier efforts.
1Screeching Weasel is essentially Ben Weasel's (Foster). Other than Jughead (sometimes "John Jughead," real name Ian Pierce), Ben is the only member since the band started. He also, almost exclusively, does the songwriting.
2According the Fat catalogue, "this album was originally called '...And Out Came the Chihuahuas,' but Ben didn't want to offend anyone." Namely Rancidthough Ben has rarely worried about offending people and it could be Fat Mike's sense of humor showing through. Personally, I think if the album had been recorded and released the same, only with Green Day as the band, it would've been a huge hit. But that kind of success wasn't meant for SW.
3During and after the Fat partnership, there were some re-releases and other work that came out. In 1997, they released the Formula 27 EP (out-takes from Bark Like a Dog) and re-released the first, eponymously titled album (from 1987really an artifact for completests; the album is pretty bad). In 1998, they re-released their album length cover of the first Ramones album (originally recorded in 1992) backed with the four songs from the Formula 27 EP under the title Beat is on the Brat. In early 1999, the album Four on the Floor was released on Panic Button. Four bands each contributed four songs, SW had top billing.
4There were some scattered shows (about thirty minutes or less each time) during the last couple years before the final breakup.
5The "rant" isn't included in the lyrics and may have been ad-libbed during recording. As the song ends you hear someone say "you fucked up" and "it's a take."
(Sources: every Screeching Weasel CD in print, www.screechingweasel.com, an old Fat Wreck Chords catalogue mailer, a being a fan for around six years)