Day One hundred and thirty one "Pancreas" from Straight Outta Lynwood
Seeing a whole mess o’ shows on “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Self-Indulgent Vanity Tour gave me a new respect for the American pop parodist and, as this column has perhaps illustrated, I was already something of a fan.
I was particularly impressed by Al and his band’s ability to sound exactly like the acts they’re pastiching, whether that meant channeling the sleazy Sunset Strip psychedelia of the Doors on “Craigslist”, the thunderous blues minimalism of the Strokes on “CNR” or Tonio K’s neurotic, hostile New Wave aggression on “I Was Only Kidding” and “Happy Birthday.”
Al and his collaborators make it look so easy and do it so effortlessly that it can be very easy to overlook what a remarkable achievement perfectly capturing the sound of the greatest acts in rock history represents.
I look at Al’s career in stages. The first stage constituted the early years, from the first submissions to The Dr. Demento Show on through the Reagan/Bush-era golden era that constituted his period of peak prolificness. These days were dominated by songs about food and television, the MTV era when he made his name and reputation and became a household name, cult movie star and enduring cultural icon.
This was followed by his middle period, when he took further control over his career by becoming his own producer and directing videos for himself and others. Al stopped releasing albums at such a furious clip and songs about the old staples of munchies and the boob tube gave way to songs about computers, technology and the internet.
For me, the third phase of Al’s career begins with “White & Nerdy” and 2006’s Straight Outta Lynwood. He’d been in the business and releasing albums for over two decades. He was a grown man with a legacy to protect and preserve facing an uncertain industry where the old rules and old institutions were crumbling.
It was, in other words, a time of mastery. This is Al’s mature stage albeit in a field that encourages eternal adolescence and frowns grimly upon maturity as the enemy of fun. “Pancreas” is indicative of the casual mastery that has defined this stage of Al’s career.
On a sonic level, Al and his collaborators, who include both his band and ringers like Tower of Power trumpet player Lee Thornburg, cellist Sarah O’Brien, trombonist Nick Lane, double bassist Miles Jay and french horn player John Dickson, set out to make a song that sounds like it could be an outtake from the aborted Smile sessions.
That’s not so small order, considering Brian Wilson’s work with Van Dyke Parks, the Beach Boys and an overflowing roster off studio musicians during the Pet Sounds era is held in high acclaim in no small part because it’s so sophisticated and complex, and involves so many moving parts.
“Pancreas” perfectly replicates the sound and vibe of an era when Brian Wilson, his mind opened to the infinite possibilities of the universe, particularly where sound was concerned by copious LSD consumption that had not yet destroyed his fragile psyche and he seemed intent on gleefully transgressing the dreary limitations of rock and roll with miniature symphonies that including seemingly every sound in the universe, from the bleat of a baby goat to the death howl of an insane God.
It was as if the only way for Wilson to calm the demons in his head and achieve even a moment of peace would be to realize the sounds in his head no matter the cost or aggravation involved.
Wilson was striving heroically for the transcendent, the enduring, the spiritual and sacred and sublime. But he was also, famously, a giant weirdo, so that quest for the divine sometimes took the form of writing songs about his love of vegetables, as on the 1967 Smiley Smile track “Vegetables”, which contains lyrics like, “If you brought a big bag of (vegetables) home, I’d jump up and down and hope you tossed me a carrot”
How do you top something like that? If you’re Al, you imagine Brian Wilson waxing rhapsodic not about his love of celery and whatnot, but rather about the pancreas, his favorite internal organ.
In keeping with its inspiration, “Pancreas” is less a simple song than a miniature suite that, like the similarly ambitious, similarly sophisticated, similarly audacious and similarly impressive “Genius in France”, is continually shifting and morphing and changing shape and form and genre and tone as it goes along.
“Pancreas” is the antithesis of minimalism. But if there’s an enormous amount going on for a song about the miraculousness of an internal organ, the sound is never cluttered or messy. There’s a cleanness to the sound, a hyper-professional polish that speaks to Al’s enormous growth not just as a songwriter but also as a producer and a musician.
“Pancreas” isn’t just a tribute to Smile era Brian Wilson and his glorious eccentricities; in less than four minutes it tracks their fascinating and important sonic and cultural evolution (one that mirrored, echoed and influenced a similar evolution taking place overseas with the Beatles, whose Paul McCartney reportedly chomped celery on “Vegetables” but is not listed in its personnel) from the relative innocence of their early to mid-60s output to the freaky LSD atmospherics of “Good Vibrations”, Pet Sounds and Smile and then the weird sonic experiments
that followed, as Brian Wilson and his band went down very different paths, as Wilson tried to attain spiritual fulfillment through art and Mike Love and the gang tried to keep the money machine going strong singing surf songs to nostalgic suckers.
In an earlier era, I might have argued that “Pancreas” is another of Al’s songs about weird obsessives whose lives gain new meaning and excitement with the addition of some unlikely, comically incongruous pseudo-marvel, from Ed McMahon to Gilligan’s Island. But I feel like Al had outgrown that by this point.
He’s playing a bigger, more sophisticated game here. The comedy here comes less from hard jokes than from the audacity of the song’s concept and the beauty of its execution.
“Pancreas” is primarily a loving, pitch-perfect homage to the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson at their most loopily ambitious but there’s a crystalline section where our pancreas-crazy crooner sings, “My pancreas attracts every other/Pancreas in the universe/With a force proportional
To the product of their masses/And inversely proportional/To the distance between them” that sounds equally like the Beatles and They Might Be Giants.
On “Pancreas”, “Weird Al” Yankovic continues to make science fun, littering this groovy tribute to the most brilliant and damaged Beach Boy and a seriously groovy organ with college words like “deuodenum", “Insulin”, “glucagon”, “Lipase”, “amylase”, and “tripsin.”
With “Pancreas”, Al and his collaborators created an epic song of great, unlikely beauty about an unlikely subject matter that Al manages to make seem weirdly beautiful in its own right.
Incidentally, Al actually played accordion on "Let's Stick Together” from Sweet Insanity, a Brian Wilson album recorded while the eccentric genius was under the care of controversial psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy that was never released. This reverses the usual dynamic, where Al gets someone like Ben Folds or Ray Manzarek to contribute to tribute to their work on songs like “Why Does This Always Happen to Me” or “Craigslist.”
It would have been a coup if Al had been able to get Wilson to contribute to “Pancreas” but he did magnificently even without him.
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