“Weird Al” Yankovic – Mandatory Fun
Being that it’s 2014, let’s take a moment to marvel at Weird Al Yankovic’s career. For over 30 years (!), Al’s not just been a successful comedian but a multi-generational cultural touchstone, a force of giggly glee that somehow transcended the novelty of pop music parody to endure, while other musicians, actors, comics and artists fell by the wayside. Granted, Al hasn’t released masterpiece after masterpiece. Musical comedy is already a hit-or-miss affair, and when you’ve been at it this long, you’re gonna have some stinkers. But considering most people in his field only flirt with success before they dissolve into bar trivia and remember-when lists, his continued presence is downright astonishing. I’m not suggesting his career is based solely on luck or nostaligia—rather, it’s quite the opposite. His 14th record, Mandatory Fun, proves why, in his mid-50s, he’s able to still churn this stuff out and make headlines.
First, it’s important to note his parodies rarely have to do with the songs themselves. Other than the backing track and maybe a rhyming title, the rest can go wherever Al wants it to. This means Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” can be rewritten about a boastful repairman in “Handy,” and Lorde’s spectral “Royals” instead espouses the food preservation and alien-signal deflection benefits of “Foil.” And that’s one of the other keys to Al’s, and Mandatory Fun‘s, success: his mix of absurdism and observational humor. No one else is going to write a song about these things, and the disparity between the pristine pop productions and his mundane subjects propels some unexpectedly funny moments, like when the bombast of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” juts up against a static slacker protagonist in “Inactive.” Plus, even when he’s playing with material that’s been worked to death elsewhere, like grammar scolding (“Word Crimes”) or privilege (“First World Problems”), there are enough clever spins on the subjects to make them worth the effort.
It’s Al’s original material where things become a bit more iffy. Try as he might, his songwriting just isn’t always particularly memorable, despite their humorous resemblance to the styles he’s skewering. This means that when the jokes aren’t working, like in the pointless college fight anthem “Sports Song” and the Foo Fighters rip “My Own Eyes,” the tracks don’t have a strong musical center to anchor them. But, as always, there are spots where his material comes together. There’s the name-dropping, cowbell-loaded, southern-fried rawk of “Lame Claim To Fame” (“I used the same napkin dispenser as Steve Carell at a Taco Bell!”), and the corporate-jargon satire “Mission Statement” uses warm, CSNY harmonies to enhance the cold business-speak. “First World Problems,” meanwhile, goes all in for a Pixies homage (check the “Debaser” riff that kicks it off) and comes up aces. “Jackson Park Express,” the Cat Stevens/Phil Ochs/Ben Folds-ish voyage that ends the record finale “Jackson Park Express” is stuck in the middle. At 9 minutes, Al’s clearly going for the same over-the-top, “I can’t believe this is still going” territory previously traveled by “Albuquerque” or “Trapped In The Drive-Thru,” and while its tale of an imaginary, escalating relationship has its fair share of laughs, it also can’t quite justify its length. But despite these weaker moments, Mandatory Fun finds Weird Al in fine form. Because at his best, and the highlights here often find him around that level, Al’s music is a glorious, inclusive pop culture celebration, and like the album’s requisite polka cover medley (this one’s called “NOW That’s What I Call Polka!”), it’s mostly a giant, lively party designed to get everyone together to put a big, stupid smile on your face at all costs. For a mission that began in the Cold War-era, I’d say he’s doing okay.