There’s a peculiar saintly glow surrounding “Weird Al” Yankovic. My earliest communal listening experiences took place in front of a tape deck in my friends’ bedrooms, where we played Off the Deep End or The Food Album over and over, laughing until we couldn’t breathe. Weird Al’s legacy is, by now, well-established, and his peculiar brand of absurdity — a mélange of savvy pop culture references, unabashed dorkiness, and a dash of the playfully macabre — has had a significant impact in the world of comedy (musical or otherwise). But in many ways, it was Weird Al who opened me up to the pleasures of music in general. I didn’t really grow up in a musical household, and left to my own devices, I may never have been able to sift through the sea of artists and genres to find what spoke to me. But Weird Al provided a safe entry point into all of that. I could listen to his tapes front-to-back and laugh at his jokes, all the while absorbing the melodies of the songs that he parodied, gaining familiarity with the musical landscape and the bands that populated it at the time. And I know I’m not alone in this — there are a lot of 80s and 90s children for whom Weird Al was among their first albums (Maybe even the folks in Godspeed You! Black Emperor?).
So it’s difficult to turn a critical eye to the man’s work, because his work is woven into the very fibers of my being — songs like “Fat” and “Eat It” seeped osmotically into my skull and got caught there when my fontanelle hardened. Yet, if I’m doing my job, I have to admit that Weird Al is most often remembered for his triumphant singles, rather than for his often uneven albums. For every shining moment of hilarity, there are one or more corresponding tracks that can’t sustain their premises for the length of their run times, like Bad Hair Day’s “Cavity Search,” in which Al reworks a minor U2 single into an ode to dentistry, or his send-up of body art enthusiasts, “Another Tattoo,” off 2011’s Alpocalypse. Weird Al’s most enduring parodies have combined iconic source material with powerful comedic concepts. Think of “Smells Like Nirvana,” which takes the song most emblematic of rock & roll in the 90s and uses it to poke fun at its author’s poor enunciation. Think of “White and Nerdy” or “Amish Paradise,” which jack hip-hop’s swagger in the service of geekdom and Luddite religious communities, respectively.
It’s impossible to predict which of today’s hit songs will become tomorrow’s classics, but at least Mandatory Fun, Weird Al’s 14th studio album, delivers on the laughs. His strength as a comedian has always been in the precision of his lexical choices, his ability to string together complex ideas into fluid narratives, and here we find him at the top of his game. There’s not much in the world that’s more delightful to a recovering English major such as myself than to hear someone rhyme “Okay now here’s the deal/ I’ll try to educate ya” with “Gonna familiarize/ You with the nomenclature.” It’s actually a little surprising that Weird Al hasn’t recorded a song like “Word Crimes” (based on last summer’s hit song/think-piece prompt “Blurred Lines”) before now, because his business is words as much as music. His love for them is apparent. He’s got a vocabulary that puts the artists he’s lampooning to shame, and he uses it to devastating effect throughout the album, like the wonderfully stilted exercise in trash talk “Sports Song” or “Mission Statement,” written wholly in impenetrable corporate jargon.
There are certain themes that we’ve come to expect from a Weird Al album. Food and mental illness are among his most revisited, and he hits them both on Lorde parody “Foil,” slipping seamlessly from a paean to aluminum foil’s food-preserving virtues into a paranoid rant about the illuminati (an abrupt shift in tone illustrated brilliantly in the video above). Iggy Azalea spoof “Handy” holds down the “home improvement” front staked out by earlier offerings like “Hardware Store” and “The Plumbing Song.” And, of course, no Weird Al album would be complete without an anti-love ballad or two, and this album brings it hard with Al original “Jackson Park Express,” a nine-minute long inner monologue from a deranged homeless man directed at a female fellow commuter that grows less and less coherent as the song unfurls (just a little taste: “You are my answer/ My answer to everything/ Which is why I’ll probably do very poorly/ On the written part of my driver’s test”). A customary polka medley, featuring snippets from Miley Cyrus, Daft Punk, and Pitbull, rounds out a surprisingly consistent set.
Despite having been in the business for coming up on four decades, Weird Al is approaching something of a crossroads of his career. Although he’s been successful at weathering the changes wrought by the internet until now, his interviews in recent years have acknowledged that in the present moment — where the internet is awash with video parodies of hit singles within days of the songs charting — traditional modes of releasing music may no longer be effective. Al has alluded to the possibility that Mandatory Fun could be his final album proper, and that in the near future, he could be exploring his options with digital releases. It’s an exciting prospect, considering the album format has almost always been a little unwieldy for what he does (listeners would not have been particularly worse off without “Lame Claim to Fame,” or lethargic Imagine Dragons parody “Inactive” this time around), and unburdened from the album’s recording cycle, he’d have the flexibility to respond more rapidly to the churning of pop culture.
Whatever path Weird Al chooses to follow, I hope his songs will still find their way into the ears and hearts of kids for years to come. It’s too sad a thing to grow up without a little weirdness in our lives.