[Review] - Mandatory Fun, By "Weird Al" Yankovic

After more than 30 years, Weird Al's continued and growing success cannot be contributed to the wave of eighties nostalgia that has a hipster-lead death grip on the modern cultural environment, for the simple reason that Al has never went away. And more than that, Al has proven to be as adept at reading cultural shifts as he is at switching musical styles. His brief pause in album releases in the mid aughts was during a time of major cultural upheaval, as the internet age came into being, and Al saw a democratization and proletarian seizure of his livelihood as the age of CDs and music videos came to an end, and the rise of Youtube made every teenager with a webcam into an amateur parodist.

But Al adjusted, and returned with Alpocalypse, his best album since 1996's Bad Hair DayAlpocalypse was a reinvigorated Al, imbued with seemingly singular vision and intent, and returned to his raison d'etre with vigour and zeal. Mandatory Fun is a return to Al Classic. Not that Al Classic is bad; far from it. With the possible exception of Poodle Hat, the modern Al has yet to produce a bad album. But Mandatory Fun sees Al return to the comfort zone of his musical abilities, and an album arrangement that is familiar. He remains as Al as ever, filling the disc with food, obesity and absurdity obsessed songs, and handily parodies the modern billboard chart. It is a comforting album, that doesn't challenge; it reaffirms, and maybe that's exactly what we need.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains the lyric "I want you inside me, like a tapeworm."

Since my knowledge of music stops somewhere around 1989, any familiarity I might have with modern releases is usually gleaned from the 10 second snippets played at hockey games. As such, Alpocalypse was the first time (after a long and steady drop off) that I was completely unfamiliar with any of the original works that Al was parodying. That, in my mind, made the album's success all the more impressive. Al had managed to transcend simply familiarity and really make something that existed on it's own. With Mandatory Fun, I found myself acquainted with a couple of the source songs, which must mean I've either started to pay more attention to my surroundings, or modern musical culture is getting just that much more oppressive and insistent.

Every Weird Al album is split between the direct parodies and the original compositions in the style of a particular artist, and I've always been more impressed by the latter. Not to demean Al's considerable talents in the arena of the former; certainly no one else could have turned Lola into Yoda. But from a technical perspective, the skills involved in distilling a group or artist's style into something recognizable and replicatable, even when given a heavy coating of Al's patented insanity, is a remarkable feat. So, it is those songs that I usually favour on any particular album. Not so here. This time around, with two exceptions, it is the parodies that win out.

First World Problems and Sports Song both suffer from the same issue, which is that they are both great ideas, but neither really lives up to the concept. Sports Song is irritating, as nearly every Big Band sports anthem is, but it almost demands to be shorter than it's two minute run time. If it has remained simply as the first verse and the refrain, the intent of the tune would have been better realized, and better suited towards becoming an ear-worm, like Al's magnum opus, Harvey The Wonder Hamster. First World Problems isn't a new idea, and the Pixie's style doesn't really fit with Al's arrangement, leading the finally product to be tolerable as the album nears it's conclusion. The lyrics aren't particularly inspired, and it lacks the crispness of some of Al's previous modern world satires.

Lame Claim to Fame is as close as Al gets on this album to having a truly "in the moment" song. There is no Ode to a Superhero or The Saga Begins or Gump on this album (that would have went to a Let It Go parody about Captain Picard, except one already existed on the internet - part of Al's five year pause was his coming to terms with the fact that by the time he got around to recording a song, the best ideas had already been taken). Lame Claim fallows more after Couch Potato or TMZ, in that it focuses less on the (easily dated) specifics of a person place or thing, and more on the aberrant behaviour that is increasingly common in a digital age. The song itself is one that will probably grow on me the more I live with the album, and is probably the song whose lyrics will most likely wedge themselves inside your head.

For me, the two greatest success on the album were My Own Eyes, in the style of Foo Fighters, and Mission Statement in the style of Crosby, Stills & Nash. My Own Eyes is the most Weird Al song on this album, a familiar and comforting return to the unrepentant absurdity that has defined Al's career. With lines like "I saw a stripper kiss a duck behind a dumpster in Aruba" and "some priest got drunk and stole a circus zebra and he trained it to massage his back," it just goes to show the kind of genius that can overtake you when you abandon sense and reason and let the bizarre be your northern star. As an aping of Foo Fighters, I actually mistook it at first for a commentary on Green Day, so probably not as successful as it could have been. But as a song, it's first class Al. Mission Statement is probably the most successful adoption of a style I've heard from him, ever. I actually had to double check the liner notes to make certain it just wasn't a straight up parody of Carry On. The juxtaposition of CS&N's anti-establishment origins and Mission Statement's pure corporate double speak is hilarious, but Al actually makes the nonsense (which reads like he copy and pasted it off an actual company's website) work as an anthem.

The biggest disappointments on the album were Jackson Park Express, a return to the long-form, meandering closers that had punctuated his previous albums but had been welcomingly absent from Alpocalyse. It contains some fantastic examples of Al at his weirdest, matching My Own Eyes in being undeniably Al, and of the long form songs it is easily the most tolerable, but I have never been in love with this style of song as Al clear is. And I have always felt that they are weak way to end an album. And sadly, despite his polka tunes usually being a high point, I just didn't feel the chemistry in Now That's What I Call Polka! I'd say it's because I'm unfamiliar with any of the songs, except the same was true last time, and I felt that one came together nicely. Maybe it's because so much of the songs today have a general sameness to them, that these polka remixes lack the hard juxtaposition that made them so much fun to begin with.

I think, part of the growing problem facing Al is that the songs he is choosing to parody, those with the most in the moment recognition, don't have enough substance to give them any longevity. Certainly, there were no guarantees back when he was recording Fat or Like a Surgeon that the originating songs would remain in the public consciousness long enough for his takes to have continued relevancy. But now we're at a point where ten years from now, a person will be more likely to remember Al's Handy than Iggy Azalea Fancy. All of Al's direct parodies this time have more of a sense of perseverance behind them than the songs they were born from, if only because the pop and rap music charts are such a meat grinder of manufactured hits and talent, while Al sits comfortably at the top of a hill occupied only by him. The only song Al parodies this album that might take on a long life might be Royals by Lord, which Al hilariously lampoons as Foil, an ode to metallic food rap (and seems to be missing a verse).

Word Crimes, his take on Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines will almost certainly outlast that performer, and Tacky (off of Happy) by Pharrell Williams is another excellent example of Al picking at the scabs of humanity and calling them on their antisocial behaviour. And I give his Radioactive (by Imagine Dragons) cover Inactive my award for song that won me over the hardest between the first and second listen. Al has always had his particular topic obsessions, and lethargy is one of the ones that seems to be a bottomless pit of inspiration. On the first listen, I thought the lyrics were great, but like First World Problems didn't match the tune. On revisiting the track, I listened to the music, and found myself completely won over by the combination Al selected.

Mandatory Fun is Mandatory Al. It's everything you could expect from one of the most dynamic and long lasting personalities in music. There are weaknesses, but as a whole the album succeeds more often than not and put a smile on your face, which I'm pretty sure remains Al's biggest motivating factor.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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