Tuesday, July 15, 2014

album review: 'mandatory fun' by "weird al" yankovic

If you've been following this review series at all for a while, you may have come to a certain conclusion about yours truly: that I am, despite all appearances, am a total nerd. And I'm here to inform you that...

Yeah, duh. Amazing what the passage of time has done, isn't it? Twenty or even ten years ago, such an admittance would have tantamount to social suicide, but in today's day and age, where The Big Bang Theory can run for over seven seasons, conventions are attended by tens of thousands of people if not more, and comic book & toy movies can enlist A-list talent and break box office records, admitting I've got deeply nerdy interests is - and indeed, never should have been - an object of remorse or shame. And yeah, I'm the kind of nerd who has hundreds of fantasy and sci-fi novels, can quote Monty Python and Star Wars verbatim, used to be a Dungeon Master when playing D&D, occasionally still goes to Magic: The Gathering tournaments, has a physics degree, and has Aragorn's longsword Anduril from The Lord of The Rings mounted on his wall. 

And like the majority of nerds, I love Weird Al Yankovic, the legendary polka comedy performer who has spent over thirty years parodying pop music with a razor-sharp wit and relentlessly upbeat sense of humour. It should go without saying at this point that the man is a cultural treasure with extraordinary wit and talent, and who is beloved by artists and pop satirists around the world, and it's impressive that he can still come up with innovative and relevant comedy for so long in his career without becoming bitter or jaded or hotly political. 

But over the past few years, something decidedly odd has taken place - the world and especially the Internet embraced nerd culture, and suddenly it wasn't just Weird Al making comedy songs and videos and parodies. And given how damn quickly so many of them work, especially on YouTube with its five minute attention span, it was a little unsettling to think that Weird Al might be crowded out of the market he helped create - or worse, that his material not be as relevant given the lightning turnaround time for so many YouTube comedians and parody acts. That was one of the issues that I found when I listened to his last album Alpocalypse, which took material from across three years of pop music and while I liked a great deal of it, there were parts that even then felt a little dated.

But putting that minor concern aside, this is Weird Al, and if his appearance on Epic Rap Battles of History didn't prove that the man still had enormous chops, I don't know what would, and so of course I was excited for his newest album Mandatory Fun, and since none of this album had been leaked ahead of time, I had no idea what to expect. Was it as fun and hilarious as I hoped?

Well, yeah, definitely, it's Weird Al! It shouldn't be any surprise that Mandatory Fun is almost exactly that: a great comedy album that's a ton of fun with a fair amount of wit and charm without having the need to get filthy or step into tasteless territory. Is it perfect? No, I wouldn't say that, but it's a ton of fun and definitely worth your time if you're a fan or just looking for a laugh.

Now, my policy when it comes to reviewing comedy in any form is a straightforward acknowledgement that I tend to like humour when it's too clever for its own good and can make some level of commentary on society at large. It's why I tend to find shows like Community, Seinfeld, and Arrested Development and comedians like the late and great George Carlin so damn funny and insightful. It also means that humor that falls into the vein of 'awkward/dark/edgy for its own sake' or is traditionally a lot broader doesn't tend to click with me as well. In Weird Al's case, when it comes to his parody material the stuff I love falls into two camps: the solid songs/artists/styles that I already like and are only enhanced by the parody, or the music that the parody paradoxically makes more tolerable.

And on this record, we definitely get some of both. In the former category, I loved the twisted direction Weird Al takes with the Lorde parody 'Foil', and his adaptation of 'Blurred Lines' solid instrumentation into a screed against incorrect grammar is amazing and will likely replace the original in my mind. 'My Own Eyes' is a fantastic absurdist interpretation of The Foo Fighters, the approaching memetic 'Tacky' is better written and significantly more fun than Pharrell's 'Happy' in lampooning garish, self-obsessed culture, and I even liked the subversion of Imagine Dragons' bombast in 'Inactive' into a song about doing absolutely nothing. But my absolute favourite parody and probably my favourite song on the record was 'Mission Statement', a Crosby, Stills, & Nash parody that adapts an old George Carlin joke about the emptiness of corporate language that was goddamn phenomenal and all the more poignant given my current job. And in the latter category, 'Handy' shows that Weird Al is a damn solid rapper in parodying Iggy Azalea's 'Fancy' and even manages to slide in clever sexual double entendres to his hardware store references. And as someone who despises Cat Stevens, 'Jackson Park Express' is not only a fantastic send-up of singer-songwriters in that vein, but also of presumptuous culture and misread non-verbal cues when it comes to hookups taken to its logical extreme. 

Now that's not saying all of his jokes were smashes. I've never really liked Weird Al's songs touching on celebrity culture, and despite the pretty solid instrumentation parodying Southern Culture on the Skids, I was mostly ambivalent on 'Lame Claim To Fame'. The Pixies parody 'First World Problems' suffered a lot of the same problem - sure, there was some wit there and it sounded better than anything the Pixies have put out recently, but I've seen so many YouTube videos lampooning this subject that the joke just fell completely flat. And while I did like the kitschy style of 'Sports Song', the jokes felt a little uninspired here especially considering sport cheers in this vein have been parodied for decades. And while it is clear Weird Al gets the internet through his various references - especially on 'Tacky' and 'Word Crimes' - there are a few references that can't help but come across as a little too kitschy.

This takes us to instrumentation and production - and look, like always, I have a ton of respect for Weird Al's band and his gift for recreating beats and mixes of the artists he's parodying. And his original compositions are incredibly solid - while I think his polka mix on this album starts off a little slow, it's still infinitely more enjoyable than some of the songs he's parodying and he actually managed to make 'Pumped Up Kicks' and 'Sexy And I Know It' tolerable for me, which is damn close to a miracle. But that said, I can't help but wish that the music industry at large would realize Weird Al is a national treasure and at least let him work with the producers who helped create some of these songs originally so he can more aptly mimic the instrumentation. For the most part, he's pretty damn close: 'Word Crimes', 'Foil', and 'Mission Statement' are probably the closest to matching the original sound or even improving on it, but the mixes on 'Inactive' and 'My Own Eyes' could have been made a little less muddy and a few tracks could have used just a little less pop gloss, to make them a little more organic. 

But overall, a Weird Al album needs to make me laugh, and dear god it did that multiple times. And while I don't think this album has my favourite polka mix or that this record has the immediate smash hit of 'White & Nerdy' or the sheer zany awesomeness of 'Trapped In The Drive Thru', 'The Biggest Ball of Twine In Minnesota', 'Hardware Store', 'Don't Download This Song', 'Albuquerque', or 'Stop Sending That Crap To Me', it's still damn solid and definitely worth a lot of listens. Like all Weird Al Yankovic albums, it will inevitably feel a little dated in a year or two from now - probably less, given the Internet - but it's still very good and damn close to great, so I'm giving it a cautious 8/10 and definitely a recommendation. And for a comedy artist thirty years into his career, being able to still deliver the laughs is high praise indeed.

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