Whether you’re a die-hard fan or not, the release of a new Weird Al album is an important thing. The man has observed, deconstructed, composed, performed, and recorded music in every popular genre of the last three decades. What other artist can say that? He is an all-seeing pop culture overlord. Al knows us better than we know ourselves. But Yankovic is himself a part of the story unfolding. The world is changing rapidly, the music industry is collapsing in on itself, and “Weird Al” Yankovic, though he still looks like a spry young thing, is over fifty. Adapting to the new norm and spinning it on its head is his greatest trick, but can he keep up the pace? Since the early ’90s he’s been releasing albums at widening intervals – three, four, and now five years apart. For those of us who’ve been hooked on parodies and polkas since our adolescence, the wait is agonizing. Well, ALcolytes rejoice, the Alpocalypse has come and our souls shall be cleansed in its comedic conflagration.
Alpocalypse is Weird Al’s 13th record, his first full-length release since 2006’s Straight Outta Lynwood. Five years is the longest gap between albums ever in Yankovic’s career, but in the interim he tried out something new, and released a five track digital EP called, Internet Leaks. Release of Internet Leaks‘ tracks began in 2008 with the extremely timely parody of T.I.’s “Whatever You Like” (by the same name) about spoiling your fly honey amidst the nation’s damaged economy. The track was recorded and released in two weeks and made it to iTunes while T.I.’s original was still number one in the charts. It was a bold move and a great way to keep up with the times. Despite having been announced around the same time as “Whatever You Like”, the EP’s additional four tracks, all original work, appeared nearly a year later. Oddly enough, fast forward to 2011, all five of the EP’s tracks appear on Alpocalypse.
Al’s a big fan of patterns, and not just the brightly colored ones on his shirts. His albums have developed a formula over the years: 12 tracks, five parodies, one polka mega-mix of hit songs, six originals most often “style parodies” of other artists. Within those tracks there are also a number of subjects that he returns to: food, television, ironic romance, and he frequently illustrates the core concept of a song with lists of anecdotes or items. By the numbers Alpocalypse is all there: 10 fingers, 10 toes, one accordion, 12 tracks. But though it was great to have Internet Leaks as something to chew on in between full-lengths, it’s a true disappointment to see nearly half of the new album occupied by old tracks.
That said, as a unified album, Alpocalypse stands alongside Yankovic’s 21st century offerings in equal standing. It’s a tough thing to judge. After all, what can you compare a Weird Al album to but his previous work? There’s also a matter of nostalgia to combat against. Yankovic recently tweeted “common review for Alpocalypse: ‘It’s really good, but not nearly as great as (whichever Weird Al record I listened to when I was 12)’” And this is a sentiment that’s sure to be shared by the vast majority of adult listeners. The fact is, there is no perfect Weird Al album. Each of his records act as a cross section of culture. They become time capsules. Yankovic takes strides to give his topical tracks some serious staying power; just look at the longevity of 1999’s “It’s All About the Pentiums”. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Often times the humor of his parody lyrics outlive the notoriety of the tracks he parodies. Ultimately, the best way to judge a Weird Al album is on a song-by-song basis.
Alpocalypse opens with “Perform This Way”, a Lady Gaga parody that garnered a lot of press drama in recent months when Gaga’s manager declined the parody without even letting her know it existed. Yankovic stated in his open letter regarding the incident that a Gaga parody was more or less expected of him and that based on those expectations, he was hesitant. But in the end, Alpocalypse needed a super-current parody to complete the album and a new Gaga single was too good an opportunity to pass on. This is the track that will bring the kids in and make a ton of new Weird Al fans. It was a smart business decision. Unfortunately it’s an all around weak song that expresses Al’s initial concerns with doing the parody in the first place: it’s too easy. Lady Gaga is a wild performer and has a lot of outrageous outfits. End of story. It falls short of all of Yankovic’s other leading parody singles. It’s not “Smells Like Nirvana”, it’s not “Amish Paradise”, it’s not “White and Nerdy”, it’s not “Fat”. It ain’t nothin’.
The real star of the album is “Party in the CIA”, a parody of Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA”. It’s brilliant. As an adult man I have next to zero association with the original song. I may have heard it in passing a couple times, tops. However, connection with the original means nothing; it’s all about what’s new. “Party in the CIA” is Weird Al at his finest. His lyrics take an unbearable bubblegum pop song and stealthily snaps its neck, planting in its place a brutal tale of special operative hijinks. It’s as though “Party in the USA” was written only so Weird Al could parody it. Its very existence has now been validated in spades. The humor is great, the premise is executed with brutal efficiency. “Stagin’ a coup like yeah, brainwashin’ moles like yeah.” “Party in the CIA” is a straight up amazing track that pays for the album by itself.
Other parodies include “TMZ”, a parody of Taylor Swift’s “You Belong to Me”, “Another Tattoo”, a parody of B.o.B.’s “Nothin’ on You”, and the aforementioned “Whatever You Like” – all of them solid offerings. “TMZ” takes Swift’s bittersweet tune and skillfully reapplies it to the plight of celebrities coping with the constant mockery an over analyzation at the hands of paparazzi and a certain nefarious website. “They’ll be there with you when you’re going to jail, first on the scene for every wardrobe fail.” “Another Tattoo” takes on the topic of tattoo addiction and the massive surge in dermal art over the past decade. Absurd tattoo descriptions are aplenty in this track and hipsterdom’s love for ironic ink is well represented: “check out this rad Boba Fett, he’s playing clarinet”.
Any Weird Al fan will tell you, the real action is most often in the album’s original tracks. Al’s original’s are frequently written to be style parodies of other musicians and come from a diverse range of sources. Fist up on the tracklist is “CNR”, a tribute to late actor Charles Nelson Reilly in the style of The White Stripes. The track lifts the relatively obscure actor to legendary status with Chuck Norris-style tall tales of his greatness. The lyrics are hilarious and replication of The Stripe’s sound is not only spot on but perfect for the track. The one great flaw of “CNR” is CNR himself. When first listening to the track years ago on Internet Leaks I kept wondering who this guy was, if I should know him from something, if I was missing a critical part of the joke. Years later I’ve gotten over it, but as the catalyst for this song, Charles Nelson Reilly wasn’t the ideal choice.
“Skipper Dan” goes out to anyone who’s ever worked on Disney’s Jungle Cruise ride (or Universal’s Jaws for that matter). It recounts the plight of just about everyone who’s gotten stuck in a demoralizing job while trying to make their break into Hollywood. Musically, the song is a subtle tribute to Weezer, but that aspect is understated by the focus on the brilliantly recounted sad-but-true story. “Craigslist” is an incredible and unmistakable style parody of The Doors. So complete is the recreation of their sound that original Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek was brought in to record the organs. Al’s track is not the first to be dedicated to everyone’s favorite classifieds site, but it is without a doubt the best. With moments such as an open letter to a snotty barista in the style of Jim Morrison’s monolog from “The End”, the fusion of concepts is surreal and inspired. The album’s obligatory polka medley, “Polka Face” is brilliant, as Al’s polka medley’s often are. It really seals the deal when covering Ke$ha the lyrics shift to, “tick tock on the clock, but the polka don’t stop. Yodel-odelay-he-hoo!”
Mixed among the great successes are some significant duds. Another track from Internet Leaks, “Ringtone”, is an homage to the stylings of Queen on the topic of annoying cellphone rings. The topic was already over-explored in 2009 when it was first released. It was a clunker then and it’s even more of one now. “If That Isn’t Love” exhibits one of the few reoccurring Weird Al tropes on the album, the ironic romance song. Many of these tracks have been great in the past but the gag is wearing thin. “If That Isn’t Love” is a series of anecdotes from the perspective of a mediocre boyfriend rationalizing his indifferent behavior as romance. It’s some of Yankovic’s dullest work in ages. The final track, “Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me” is a style parody of famed composer, Jim Steinman on the subject of people who constantly forward banal e-mail chains to everyone they know. The track has its moments, but isn’t particularly remarkable.
Overall, Alpocalypse is acceptable. It’s when Al’s work veers away from current events and his own reoccurring tropes that his song writing is strongest. That’s what makes “Party in the CIA” such a show-stopper of a song. When it comes to original tracks, all the most successful ones came from Internet Leaks, and those tracks are two years old now. Most Weird Al fans had already bought these songs and have now bought them again. One would hope that the Internet Age would give Weird Al more creative freedom, but with the album’s release having hinged on an obligatory Lady Gaga parody it seems like he’s still constrained within the mainstream music industries trappings. Granted, he’s a creative force with his fingers in a lot of different pies, all of them with confidentiality agreements baked in, so we can never know exactly what he’s up to. Over the years his brilliance has not waned. We can only hope that there’s more new music in the near future and not another five years between albums.