Mandatory Fun might be “Weird Al” Yankovic’s last album. He finished his record contract and is looking at other means of distribution, having clearly mastered YouTube and other media that popped up 20-plus years into his career.
Yet Al didn’t just give his own “record” career a resounding sendoff. He has recorded the last album we’ll ever need.
1. It’s his best album. Shocking, isn’t it? The typical artist in his fourth decade is releasing cover albums to get attention or just hoping to do anything to get new material out there. The relative success Rush had with Clockwork Angels is rare. More typical is the late-career Paul McCartney album, which gets a bit of critical attention but little else.
We all have our obscure Weird Al favorites from the past. I find myself singing Buy Me A Condo on occasion, particularly when I have to mow the lawn. But his style parodies and originals were often the tracks to skip. One exception: Dare to be Stupid, his third album, featured the the Devo-fied titletrack and the doo-wop classic One More Minute. (All together now: I’d … rather have my blood sucked out by leeches … (backup singers echo) lee-ches …)
He lost his way a bit immediately afterward with the lackluster Polka Party, though Christmas at Ground Zero is a timeless classic. For the next couple of decades, his singles (Fat, Smells Like Nirvana, Amish Paradise, Gump, It’s All About the Pentiums) far outshone his albums. Straight Outta Lynwood was a startling late-career peak.
Pete Chianca has already gone through Mandatory Fun track-by-track, and the album doesn’t have a weak effort. Lame Claim to Fame is probably the least interesting, and yet its video makes it worth the recording time. Then there’s Foil, which offers a brilliant mid-song twist that only a mature artist — as strange as that term may sound for someone named “Weird Al” — can pull off:
(A 21st century meta moment: A hilariously conceited conspiracy theorist thinks Foil proves Al is on his side.)
The only drawback to releasing all the songs in an eight-day blitz is that some songs might not get the attention they deserve. Tacky was brilliant but was immediately upstaged by Word Crimes. The style parodies of the Pixies, the Foo Fighters and every college fight song ever are gleefully perfect.
2. It’s a time capsule. Al has kept up on the growth of new media and the Internet like the hippest uncle you know, and somehow, he does it without sounding pathetic. In 2006, he digitally released Don’t Download This Song, a We Are the World-styled piece with the classic line “even Lars Ulrich knows it’s wrong.”
So it’s not surprising that Mandatory Fun is up on the latest in media and pop culture. That’s difficult to do when pop culture is so fragmented. In the years since rock songs stopped popping up in the Top 40, Al has parodied a lot of songs I had never heard but are apparently popular among those younger than I am. (Yes, I’m the guy who had never heard of Iggy Azalea before Al recorded Handy.) We’re past the days when everyone and his mother had heard Another One Bites the Dust or Mickey. And yet Al is reaching all demographics, turning unfamiliar songs into fun comedic sketches and turning things known mostly as Twitter hashtags (“First World Problems”) into hilarity.
The marketing campaign for Mandatory Fun has been sheer brilliance, and you know it’s mostly Al’s doing. We all saw the cover art and heard he would be releasing a video a day. Then he released those videos on different platforms. He’s reaching everyone.
Lyrically, he’s capturing life in the uber-connected 2010s. Tacky takes shots at people putting every meal on Instagram, threatening waiters with bad Yelp reviews, and taking selfies at funerals. Word Crimes lampoons our linguistic skills, which are getting lazy in the age of texting.
But as current as Al is, he’s also reaching back across generations. His style parodies on this album hit latter-day alternative (Foo Fighters), early college rock (Pixies) and classic folk-rock (Crosby, Stills and Nash). He even does a college fight song.
If you wanted an alien to hear different styles of music from the album era on one release, could you find a better place to start than this?
3. The album format is officially an anachronism. I veer wildly between early adoption and late adoption. When it comes to expensive Apple products, I’m late. I finally got an iPhone a few weeks ago.
My “album” purchases up to that point worked this way: I would pay for the album on iTunes and sync it to my iPod. That way, I could take it anywhere, especially in my 18-month-old car with a USB port that puts control of my iPod on my left thumb on the steering wheel. I could listen to whatever I want on Spotify, but if I wanted to take it with me away from my laptop or wi-fi, I still needed to buy it.
Now, I can download songs to my phone on Spotify. I can play these songs through my car stereo system via Bluetooth.
And so I “have” Al’s album, and I haven’t paid him anything more than the 0.0037 cents or whatever he gets for every play on Spotify.
Again — I’m a late adopter when it comes to this. Everyone under 30 already has a preferred way of listening to music without paying for it. I’m happy to sit through a 30-second ad to see Al’s videos (I can always buy them if I want to go without the ads), and I’ll happily look for any merchandise I can buy. I was even tempted to see if I could slip him a couple of bucks on Paypal or something to equal the royalties he would have received from a CD release circa 1995. Bottom line: If a guy like me isn’t buying a release on CD, the CD is finished as a mass-distribution medium.
Al’s a smart guy. He knows he’s not likely to get a new “record” deal that makes recording albums practical.
The album is dead. Long live Al.