So the two main reasons my fursona plays accordion both recently released a new album after a long hiatus. I am, of course, talking about They Might Be Giants' Join Us and Weird Al Yankovic's Alpocalypse, which actually seem to me to have a lot in common. While they're certainly not the next John Henry or Running With Scissors, respectively, they're both something of a return to form after a 12th studio album released in the mid-notties that had a couple of great songs amid a bunch of others that just didn't work and a lot of forced efforts to seem darker than usual. They both have a relatively minimalist presentation, with the exception of the opening track. They both have one song, When Will You Die? and Party in the CIA, that's much more exuberant and upbeat than the rest, and is actually pretty horrifying when you consider that everything it's talking about is true. (The reason When Will You Die? is true is because there *is* someone in your life that you feel that way about. It's okay, I won't tell anyone.) Of course, both bands have a long, proud history of lyrical dissonance, but you still kind of don't expect Weird Al to sing about assassinating and torturing people....
So I got the CD of Join Us the day it came out, listened to it, and my first reaction was "well that was awful. What the hell even was that." But then over the next few days, I kept thinking about the songs in it, and then I went back and listened to it again, and I found there were a lot of really brilliant ideas there. Which is the same way I've reacted to every single one of TMBG's albums except for Here Come the 123s (which was honestly just a really weak album) and Here Comes Science (which was exactly what I expected it to be,) and I've actually seen the exact same reaction in other people I've introduced to them. Like, I put on an album of theirs when I'm going on a car trip with someone, and they don't say much, and then when it ends they give me this look like "and you actually listen to this crap?" but then a few days later they come to me and ask "hey, what's that CD with the Where Your Eyes Don't Go song, I want to hear that again!" And that's why I will always love them, and I'll never be ashamed to admit it.
Like every TMBG album (except for their children's albums,) it sounds like it was made by a completely different band from the rest of their entire catalogue. While they were writing the songs for it, they apparently described it as sounding "like Spike Jones and Kraftwerk falling down the staircase together", but I don't think it sounds remotely like either Spike Jones or Kraftwerk. (Ironically enough, since Weird Al's polka medleys are much more influenced by Spike Jones than actual polka music, Alpocalypse is arguably more like something Spike Jones would write.) In terms of production, it's perhaps the most minimalist thing they've released, which is a bit of a shock when you're used to excessively byzantine stuff like Mink Car and the aforementioned John Henry. It still has all their usual themes, though. All narrators are unreliable, everyone is under subconscious control and unaware of who they really are, there are not one but two songs that talk about skulls, and seemingly unrelated cultural and academic references are all over the place.
The thing is, I think that most artists, in any medium, have certain themes that they'll always be coming back to. Maybe once a century in any medium, there might be someone like Tezuka who's able to completely reinvent himself with everything he writes, but for most people, there will be some sort of recurring theme that always shows up in their work somehow or other. It's not a question of having run out of ideas or never being able to live up to their first big hit, it's just their story. I mean, sometimes someone really does gain Protection From Editors and their later work goes to hell, the epilogue in the last Harry Potter book is proof enough of that; but I take issue with the idea that everyone goes through an inevitable decline after their initial breakthrough. I think the reason an artist's later work doesn't live up to people's expectations much more often is that the initial novelty isn't there anymore, or because the world has changed and their story seems less relevant. (You don't hear classical composers get accused of losing the power and innovation of their early work, because anyone writing about them today has always had access to their entire life's worth of work. There's no opportunity to develop a disproportionate amount of nostalgia for their early work, to get used to thinking of whatever they wrote first as your songs that describe your life perfectly.)
(And also, having heard and loved all of TMBG's albums (okay, not so much Long Tall Weekend and Here Come The 123s,) I think that Canajoharie is the best single song they've ever written. It's actually quite furry, too, being basically all about fossils and the evolution of amphibians.)
As for Alpocalypse, well, it's basically Weird Al's usual style of parody as applied to some recent songs, and a few not-so-recent ones (I wonder how many people recognized Craigslist as a style parody of The Doors without looking it up,) and really, like all of Weird Al's work, how much you get out of it is dependent on how well you know the music it's parodying. This one is perhaps a bit heavy on music made by people that use words like "tweens", but Weird Al runs with them and manages to do something funny with them, as he's often done before with songs like eBay and I Think I'm A Clone Now, and the end result is consistently very well written and produced.
And anyway, as much of pop culture is ultimately trivial crap, I think that what most people do, reacting to it with indignation, is the easy way out. Rather than the typical internet reviews you see from people like the Angry Video Game Nerd, who I seriously think writes all his reviews Mad Libs-style with blanks that are all labeled "large animal" and "euphemism for poo", I have a lot more respect for someone who's able to make fun of something by overanalyzing it in ridiculous detail, making a true deconstruction of it. (It's probably relevant that I was in MST3K fandom before I was in furry fandom.) It's something Randall Munroe of XKCD is really good at. (Yes, "trochee" really is what it's called. Ask any literature teacher.)
(I actually don't think Al's parody of Born This Way is all that great, though. Probably mainly because I once heard someone, I don't remember who now, but they said there should be a filk of that same song called "Drawn That Way" that would be about Jessica Rabbit. And that would be a much funnier idea. I also think Justin Bieber's Baby is funnier in monotone than as a polka: "And I was like baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby I thought you'd always be mine." Of course, it would just be agonizing to listen to if he did all the songs in Polka Face that way....)
Still, it's great to have someone like Weird Al to look up to, who's been around for decades and is still actually funny. He doesn't go around torturing dogs, or raping anyone. He hasn't turned into a bitter, humorless old man who's forgotten that Lake Wobegon was conceived as satire, and now thinks there really was a time when he was growing up there, and that everything was just better then (as measured by how rarely he had to be reminded that there's anyone who doesn't share all of his assumptions about how the world should be.) Because when you hear someone say stuff like "where all the children are above average" you know that they must be completely serious.
-- Bartolo Polkakitty
Keep the night light on inside the birdhouse in your soul.