Billboard Rating: 76
It’s hard out there for a professional parodist: nowadays, any idiot with a webcam can post his or her version of “Fancy” on YouTube, and if a master idiot like “Weird Al” Yankovic wants to get us tweeting about his send-ups, he’d better make them extra special. On “Mandatory Fun,” the 14th album of his crazy-long, crazy-pants career, the Weird One delivers the reprocessed goods, though it’s his original tunes — done in the idiosyncratic styles of his favorite artists — that truly warrant repeat listening.
On the parody front, Yankovic wisely plucks low-hanging fruit, turning Lorde’s “Royals,” Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive,” Pharrell’s “Happy,” and the aforementioned Iggy Azalea summer jam into songs about food storage, sloth, tactlessness, and home repair. Best of all is “Word Crimes,” a handy grammar lesson based on Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”
While it’s foolhardy to read too much into Al’s lyrics, a tune like “Word Crimes” captures the zeitgeist in more ways than one. Digital culture hasn’t simply obliterated the English language — it’s accelerated the chew-’em-up, spit-’em-out celebrity hype cycle that’s turned Thicke from R&B star to laughing stock virtually overnight. Now, Yankovic isn’t goofing on “Blurred Lines” because he, like many critics, thinks its author is a slime ball. Al’s far too good-natured for that. But let’s face it: The last thing Thicke needs right now is another person making him look silly.
In addition to track-specific remakes, Yankovic serves up a string of his patented “style parodies,” which speak to his broad taste in music. When he’s not scanning the FM dials for words he can rhyme with types of food, Al apparently gets down to Southern Culture on the Skids, Pixies, Foo Fighters, and Cat Stevens. On “Mandatory Fun,” he pays homage to these and others with varying degrees of cleverness, and by referencing the non-mainstream likes of SCOTS and Pixies, he smartly nods to an older audience that likely remembers him for his ’80s-era MTV ubiquity.
Is it “Sgt. Pepper’s?” No, “Mandatory Fun” certainly is not. But if anyone ever makes a “Sgt. Pepper’s” that’s actually about pepper—and the various foodstuffs you can sprinkle it on—it’ll be “Weird Al.” Read on to get our track-by-track take on Yankovic’s latest blast of inanity.
1. “Handy”: After a weak opening line — “First things first, I’m a craftsman” should have been something like, “First things first, I’m a drill-est” — Al takes this musically spot-on “Fancy” parody in some rather crafty (ahem) directions. There are rhymes about installing Formica countertops, laying tile, and fixing leaf blowers — all delivered by the world’s most braggadocious contractor. Here’s the motto for the side of his van: “Let me glue ‘dat, glue ‘dat / screw ‘dat, screw ‘dat.”
2. “Lame Claim to Fame”: Fans not familiar with Southern Culture on the Skids might mistake this for a remake of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle,” and Al’s probably cool with that. Grasping his semi-obscure musical reference isn’t really a prerequisite to chuckling along with this examination of our celeb-obsessed culture.
3. “Foil”: Lorde should feel honored: on “Mandatory Fun,” “Royals” is the only tune Yankovic re-imagines as a song about food. Fortunately, he doesn’t stop by telling us why aluminum foil is the best way to store that leftover sandwich. He goes on to poke fun at foil-hat-wearing, black-helicopter-fearing conspiracy theorists — a segment of the population that probably contains more than a few “Weird Al” super fans.
4. “Sports Song”: On this original tune, Al imagines a high school or collegiate marching band that doesn’t mince words. “Allow us now to summarize in a manner your feeble brains can understand / We’re great and you suck,” he sings over old-school fight-song brass. It’s pretty skippable — unless you’re a drum major, in which case it’s your summer jam.
5. “Word Crimes”
A more satirical, cynical parodist could have taken this in a million super-searing directions, but Al isn’t interested in commenting on Thicke’s alleged misogyny. Instead, he takes on bad grammar, teaching us the difference between “its” and “it’s” and explaining why the phrase “I could care less” means you actually do care.
6. “My Own Eyes”: If this Foo Fighters style parody falls flat, it’s because the Foos don’t really have a style worthy of parodying. Take away Dave Grohl’s songwriting chops and supremely likable personality, and you’re left with rousing yet fairly bland arena rock. Here, as Yankovic sings of all the strange things he’s seen in his lifetime — old men dying from Bieber fever, a mime “hacked to death with an imaginary cleaver” — he might as well be fronting one of those millions of Foos knockoffs you hear on active-rock radio.
7. “NOW That’s What I Call Polka!”: Yankovic got his start on the accordion, and he loves doing polka medleys of popular hits. Here, he and his band thump, bleat, and wheeze their way through Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball,” Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks,” and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop,” among others.
8. “Mission Statement”: Is this combination of strumming guitars, sweet harmonies, and cold-hearted corporate management-speak a comment on Crosby, Stills & Nash’s propensity for launching money-grab reunion tours? It could be, though Al’s real targets seem to be those folks who’ve introduced terms like “core competencies” and “value-added experience” into our lexicon. CS&N are all about “leveraging core competencies,” but at least they don’t talk about it.
9. “Inactive”: Since Imagine Dragons are the least interesting of the artists parodied here, it’s fitting that “Inactive” — Al’s take on “Radioactive” — is all about a housebound loser covered in pizza crust and donut crumbs. “Don’t tag my toe / I’m still alive,” Yankovic sings, offering a preview of what the Dragons themselves might be saying if their second album doesn’t take off.
10. “First World Problems”: On the disc’s most ambitious cut — both from a musical and a sociological standpoint — Al uses Pixies tunes like “Debaser” and “Hang Wire” as the framework for a surf-punk treatise on how entitled and ungrateful we’ve all become. “I’m pretty sure the cookies in this airport lounge aren’t gluten-free!” he sings. It’s a reminder that we should all be worried about more important things — like whether those still-trucking Pixies have another classic album left in them.
As with “Foil,” this parody of Pharrell’s “Happy” could have been a one-joke affair, this time about bad dressers. Instead, Yankovic explores the concept of tackiness as it pertains to social interactions, proclaiming, “I would live-tweet a funeral / take selfies with the deceased.” Is that worse than wearing socks with sandals? Who can tell anymore?
12. “Jackson Park Express”: At nine minutes, this parody of vintage Cat Stevens story songs is three times too long and about nine times too obscure for most listeners. Yankovic has said “Mandatory Fun” could be his final proper full-length album, and if that’s the case, he ends with a curious tale about a guy who meets a girl on the bus and dreams of settling down and starting a mobile pet-grooming business. Oh, and having his body “surgically grafted” to hers, because that’s how much he loves her. A typically Al-like finale, in other words.