Rightly heralded over its 25 years as one of the great pop-punk bands, Screeching Weasel has wrung a handful of classic albums out of an existence marred by frequent lineup changes and breakups, legal fights, and the vicissitudes of mercurial frontman Ben Weasel. The only constants have been Weasel and guitarist John Jughead, but First World Manifesto—Screeching Weasel’s first album since 2000’s forgettable Teen Punks In Heat—finds Weasel without Jughead for the first time. He and frequent Screeching Weasel guitarist/bassist Dan Vapid are quick to note that Jughead never wrote any music, so his absence—following a lengthy legal dispute—isn’t noteworthy.
Fans would likely disagree if First World Manifesto weren’t Screeching Weasel’s best album since its early-’90s heyday. Well produced—a rarity in the Weasel discography—by The All-American Rejects’ Mike Kennerty, it’s full of catchy, concise songs nicely layered with backup vocals, organ, and subtle flourishes. The album works because of the many moments where the elements align perfectly: the band’s signature simple guitar lead synching with the organ in “Frankengirl”; Weasel’s vocals and the guitar at the end of “Three Lonely Days”; the backup vocals in “Beginningless Vacation.”
Lyrically, Ben Weasel remains crankier than ever, with his contempt for the scene that sustains him informing much of the album. He intended the opener, “Follow Your Leaders,” to be a “poke in the eye” for punk scenesters—though Fat Wreck Chords owner Fat Mike sees it more as a personal dig—and the theme continues on “Friday Night Nation” and “Little Big Man” (which mentions Fat Mike by name). It’s a little wearying, mostly because Weasel doesn’t realize there’s nothing bold about mocking scenesters, hipsters, or other caricatures. But no Screeching Weasel fan expects nuance from Ben Weasel. Fortunately, what fans do expect—catchy, clever, anthemic pop-punk songs—First World Manifesto has in spades.