"Weird Al's" latest album - Mandatory Fun - may ironically be his last. With this album, Al reaches the end of his 14 album record contract (not including his collaboration with Wendy Carlos for Peter and the Wolf/Carnival of the Animals pt. 2, which was on a different label). The reason it may be his last, is that while he could certainly seek out a new contract, he's stated that he'd be able to be more timely by releasing singles digitally, rather than waiting the two or three years it takes to come up with an album's worth of material. In a way, he'd be returning to his pre-album years of sending tapes into the Dr. Demento Show whenever he came up with a new parody. The reason that it's ironic is that this is his first ever Billboard number one album. In fact, it's the first number one comedy album in over 50 years, and the first one ever to debut at number one. I'm wondering if he's rethinking the whole "last album" thing right about now, as I'm sure there are more than a couple of record labels out there courting him.
On the other hand, his status as a number one artist is in no doubt due at least in part to the appalling state that the music industry is finding itself in. Sales are way down, and it doesn't take nearly as many units to chart high as it used to (it would be interesting to see how this album would have charted 10 or 20 years ago with the same numbers). Still, it's an impressive feat for a comedy artist, especially one in his fourth decade of recording, to not only still resonate with his longtime fans, but manage to be relevant with the masses enough to reach number one, regardless of the state of the recording industry. "Weird Al" must be doing something right after all these years. As a fan of Al's before he ever released an album, I'm a bit sad to see the albums go away, but if it means getting songs more often like in the Dr. Demento days, then maybe it's not such a bad thing (he's gone up to five years without an album).
Before his previous album - Alpocalypse - Al released fully half of the album online early, effectively spoiling most of the album for those who watched the videos or downloaded the songs. Even though it was a solid album, it didn't feel "new" as a consequence. This time, Al kept the album tightly under wraps (save for a few clues picked up by die-hard fans), which, for me, helped build up interest for it. However, when Mandatory Fun was released, I was on vacation, far away from any CD store or internet access. Fortunately, that morning I happened to have breakfast at a restaurant that had Wi-Fi, and I was able to purchase the album from iTunes and download it while eating. While I prefer buying a CD whenever possible (which I later did anyway), getting it from iTunes had the decided advantage of immediate gratification, with the side benefit of getting my first listen of the album at the beach, free from all distractions.
So, with the preliminaries out of the way, how's the album?
Well, on the first listen or two, I thought it was a bit hit-and-miss. The further I get away from listening to current music, the less tolerant I am of the throw-away pop garbage that pollutes the airwaves now. So when it comes down to some of the annoying tropes that permeate such songs (mindlessly repetitive beats, idiotic rapping, intentional bass distortion, pointless sampling), "Weird Al" has his work cut out for him to write lyrics compelling enough to overcome the lack of talent that spawned the originals.
However, Al did something pretty brilliant this time out. He released one new video per day, for eight days. This kept people coming back each day to see what was new (and I'm sure it contributed to the sales). But for me - it did something else: it made some of the songs better. Al is as much a video artist as an album artist, and some of the videos really pushed the album to the next level.
Some… not so much.
Al had most of the album complete months ago except for the opening track on the album - Handy. He was waiting until a likely summertime hit came along to record the most current parody he could, and have the original still be on the charts when his album debuted. Handy, unfortunately is based on one of those aforementioned throw-away pop songs recorded by a completely disposable, instantly forgettable way-too-old-to-still-be-teen flavor-of-the-minute gone-tomorrow future has-been (Fancy, by Iggy Izalea and Charlie XCX - which incidentally, is not the correct way to use roman numerals). Now, Al has often worked magic by making songs I didn't really care for listenable, but his lyrics fall short of saving this song. Written about someone who is a handyman, the song recycles a lot of ideas from a concert-only song he did about the TV show Home Improvement, but without the timeliness of being associated with a current hit show. It's not that the lyrics aren't good, it's just that they're not particularly funny. The song needed some twist to it, where the song degenerates into progressively stranger things that need repairing, rather than the commonplace. The video is pretty straight-ahead as well, with only a few visual gags plussing it. One thing that would've helped: celebrity home improvement hosts (from This Old House, or HGTV) in cameo roles. It seems like both the track and video were very last-minute additions. But I guess Al has to try and be timely, and with that comes the consequences of having to parody garbage at times.
Lame Claim to Fame (an original in the style of Southern Culture on the Skids) is a track that has grown on me since first hearing it, because musically it really rocks. The lyrics are pretty good too, since everyone either has a story about some loose connection to fame, or knows someone else who does (I have several, including meeting William Shatner at an auto show, meeting Mark Hamill when he guest-lectured at work, and scanning some photos for Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz in the early days of "Weird Al's" website). Al's band really cuts loose on this track and once again shows why he's stayed with them since the very beginning of his career - they're one of he the best bands out there - adapting effortlessly to seemingly any musical style. The video I'm less enamored with. It's cut-paper stop-motion animation in the style of a scrapbook, which is fine, but the lighting is generally terrible, so it has an needlessly amateurish look to it. It's fine to mimic the look of something done by an amateur, but that doesn't mean you can't make it look good, too.
Foil is what I'd consider a filler track. Based on another song that (inexplicably to me) became a hit (Royals, by Lorde), Foil is a one-trick pony. It seems like Al came up with the wacky, second verse first, then had to come up with the mundane first verse to set up the joke. The video helps make the song more interesting, since it gives you some visuals to keep you distracted from how boring the song is otherwise. I'm not sure if Al could have done much more with this though, since I don't think there's much to the original song either. I wonder if Al sometimes feels constrained by the songs he's chosen to parody? (And yes - after listening to Mandatory Fun a couple of times, I sought out the original songs for a point of comparison.)
Sports Song was the first one off the album I went back to re-listen to. Anyone who ever had to play in marching band will appreciate this one. Al creates a pastiche of nearly every high school or college fight-song you've ever heard. He not only nails it musically, but takes great delight in skewering the typical self-aggrandizement in most of those songs' lyrics. I can see this one being played in high school pep rallies across the country. (If he hasn't already, he should publish this as a marching band chart.) The video for it works pretty well, except for one part where the crowd holds up cardboard squares to spell out a couple of words from the song. The way they chose to do it - as just black and white squares - makes them almost impossible to read. The edges just blur into the crowds. Painting giant letters on the squares would have worked much better. Still though, fun song, decent video. Playing the song would almost make me want to play in a marching band again. Almost.
Word Crimes is one of the best tracks on the album. A parody of Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, the original song has the benefit of a genuinely catchy hook, but what really elevates it is Al turning it into a brilliant rant against the countless "crimes" of bad grammar and spelling. The satirical "anger" in the song adds a great edge to it that is present in many of Al's better songs. The video uses animated words to great effect (much better than "Stop Forwarding That Crap To Me" off of Alpocalypse), mimicking logos and graphic design from many sources, adding an additional level of visual parody to it. Great stuff!
One of my favorite tracks, My Own Eyes is probably the song that best represents Al's classic lyricism. It's just weird imagery for the sake of it, in this case wrapped up in a spot-on Foo Fighters style parody that again showcases the band's ability to rock out with the best of them. This will be a great song to see live when Al goes out on tour next year. No video for this one, but I'd love to see Al and the band do a Foo Fighters style video for it.
NOW That's What I Call Polka! is the obligatory polka medley for the album, and it's a good one, although again, since I have pretty-much zero familiarity with the originals, a lot of the humor is probably lost on me. But that's less the point than the juxtaposition of out-of-context pop lyrics and polka music. Al's mentioned that these may go away in the future when he moves to be a singles-only artist, but I hope he still manages to find a way to keep doing them, since these are as much a part of his history as anything else he's done, and they define, in no small way, who he is as a musician and satirist. Again, no video for this one.
Mission Statement really fell flat for me on the first listen. It's an original style parody of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and he absolutely nails that, but the lyrics just seemed like corporate buzzword gibberish. However, after watching the video for it, suddenly the lyrics began to really gel and I picked up what the song was saying (which could be frightening, if it carried over to the real world…). It's a really well crafted song if you pay attention to it, and the brilliant whiteboard animated video for it couldn't be more perfect. It not only fits in with the theme of the song (it was created by a company that makes these videos for corporations professionally), but beautifully and humorously illustrates it as well. This went from being from one of my least favorite tracks to one of my most favorite ones.
Inactive, on the other hand, is another filler track. A parody of Radioactive by Imagine Dragons, there's just really nothing new here. It's about a guy who's really fat, which is ground that Al has covered time and again (tracks like I Love Rocky Road, Addicted to Spuds, Lasagna, Fat, Grapefruit Diet, and way too many more to list). More to the point, is that the lyrics here are repetitive and uninspired, and frankly, not all that funny. There's no point or story to the song, other than some guy talking about how fat he is. There's no twist to it, or anything to lift it beyond its plodding, repetitive music. There's no video for this song (which is fine), although oddly enough, the video for the original song is actually really, really funny. It's basically Muppet pit-fighting to the death. The song is grim, and the video serves as a brilliant, darkly funny counterpoint to it. Maybe a similar video would have helped Al's version.
First World Problems is my absolute favorite track on the album, and one of Al's best songs period. A style parody in the vein of The Pixies, it's brilliantly satirical, skewering spoiled, whiney members of the Entitlement Generation. The lyrics are some of Al's best work ever, and it's a musically complex and incredibly re-listenable track. The video for it is also first-rate, with Al playing the part of the aforementioned spoiled jerk to perfection.
Tacky is Al's parody of the Pharrell Williams hit Happy - a song so ubiquitous that even I'd heard it before Al's version came out. It's already a good parody (helped immeasurably by the original's catchy hook), but was helped out even more by the video which overflowed with Al's goofiness, as well as that of several guest celebrities, most notably Jack Black whose over-the-top enthusiasm is impossible not to picture when you listen to the song.
Jackson Park Express is an epic 9-minute song loosely in the style of Cat Stevens. As with some of Al's other epic-length songs, he takes you on a journey that's both mundane and absurd, as a bus passenger imagines an entire (and increasingly bizarre) relationship with another passenger. It also has one of the funniest single lines on the entire album. While perhaps not as funny overall as some of his other long songs (The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota, Albuquerque, Trapped in the Drive-Thru), it still does a great job of taking you on a journey and conjuring up Al's signature visual imagery.
In the end, this may not be Al's best album (the filler tracks aren't quite skip-worthy, but they're close), but it's among his best, and it's hard to argue with a number one album. It's well-worth getting for what are some of his strongest-ever tracks, notably First World Problems, My Own Eyes and Word Crimes, and most of the rest are still musically rock-solid and often very funny, showing that even after 30+ years, "Weird Al" Yankovic is going strong.
Mandatory Fun, gets a mandatory 8.5/10.