Day One hundred and thirty eight: "Close But No Cigar" from Straight Outta Lynwood
I’m not going to lie. One of the reasons I was excited to the point to delirium about Al’s Self Indulgent Vanity Tour was because I longed to hear songs like “Close But No Cigar” performed live for possibly the last time. Actually, I was excited because I specifically longed to hear that particular song.
I was not disappointed. In the seven concerts that I attended, “Close But No Cigar” was in heavy rotation. I was overjoyed. Al primarily played a souped-up accordion as his primary instrument in concert, of course. The accordion is inveterately associated with the American pop parodist and vice versa. But when he wasn’t working the old squeeze box, Al was playing various percussive instruments. When the curious instrument known as the Vibraslap was in Al’s hands and a look of manic excitement swept across his face that meant only one thing: “Close But No Cigar” was up next.
The vibraslap is one of the signature instruments of alt-rock weirdoes Cake, who Al lovingly and perfectly pays tribute to in one of his all-time best pastiches. “Close But No Cigar” is about a man who cannot deal with even the most minuscule imperfections in otherwise preposterously perfect partners but sonically and especially lyrically, “Close But No Cigar” approaches perfection.
How can you not adore a song with a lyric like “Her kisses reconfigured my DNA, and after that I never was the same?” Here Al nails the sound and style and aesthetic of the band he’s paying tribute to the extent that I consider “Close But No Cigar” one of my favorite Al songs, particularly of the deep cut variety, as well as my all-time favorite Cake song. It does not matter to me that Cake didn’t actually write or record “Close But No Cigar.” Merely inspiring it ranks as one of their most impressive achievements.
“Close But No Cigar” is yet another song about romance that posits our need for love and sex as a form of madness. But where the Lousy Lothsarios and Creepy Casanovas of Al’s other songs about the dark and creepy side of romance scream their sometimes violent insanity from the mountain tops, the impossible to please singer here suffers from standards so high that even a single microscopic flaw is enough to turn him off.
In each of the verses, Al sings the praises of his imperfect and consequently inadequate objects of interest in hilariously hyperbolic ways. We begin with case study 1: Gillian is her name, and “she was sweeter than aspartame” (we can consequently add “aspartame" to the list of words that will probably never appear in a non-“Weird Al” Yankovic pop song) to the point where, as I alluded earlier, her smooches reconfigured the singer’s DNA, altering his very existence in the process.
Our lovesick low-key lunatic doesn’t just love Gillian: he “loves her even more than Marlon Brando loves souffle” until he was finally unable to look beyond what he sees a clear deal-breaker: using “infer” when she clearly meant "imply." The two words are close to synonymous as far as I’m concerned, but “Close But No Cigar” is ferociously devoted to splitting hairs.
“Close But No Cigar” is the ideal combination of smart and silly, romantic and misanthropic. The killer album cut is full of bracingly smart, eminently quotable lyrics that takes up valuable real estate in your brain, then refuses to leave, claiming the metaphorical equivalent of squatters rights.
The first verse has that wonderful line about Gillian’s kisses reconfiguring DNA. The second verse, meanwhile, is about young Janet, “the prettiest thing on the planet”, who we learn has “a body hotter than a Habanero” as well as “lips like a ripe pomegranate” as well as “a smile so incredibly radiant you had to watch it through a piece of smoked glass.”
This is no mere looker our finicky friend singing the song has found; she’s so blinding in her beauty that to even look at her without protective eyewear would be to risk blindness.
In the right context, otherwise hack references can be nothing short of sublime. That’s the case here. I’ve written often about the Old Jokes here, and “Close But No Cigar” lovingly resurrects some of my favorite old gags from our distant, distant collective past.
As a proud champion and defender of the dad joke, I was overjoyed to hear jokes about Mama Cass tragic death by choking, Marlon Brando’s rapacious appetite for life but mostly fatty food, Richard Nixon’s infamous nervousness during his 1960 Presidential debate with John F. Kennedy and Charles Manson’s madness.
I love that a lot of the aforementioned references peaked decades before the song was released in 2006. Some of the legends irreverently roped into simile duty in the song had been dead for a very long time. Yet that did not keep Al from lovingly name-dropping them all the same, along with legendary jazz drummer Buddy Rich (who had been dead for 19 years when the song was released) and Charlize Theron, who is a contemporary reference, sure, but I’m guessing has never been compared to a “big, fat slobbering pig” in song before. I love the delirious excess of stipulating that the third impossibly perfect yet somehow insufficient dream girl didn’t just make a famous beauty like Theron look like an animal by comparison; no, he specifically states that her gorgeousness made her look like a particularly disgusting pig, not a moderately gross one.
Then again, Charlize Theron dated Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins, so who knows what kind of weird unreleased songs he might have written about her. After all, that dude is so messed up that he wrote a song about being all bugged out of his mind on crystal meth. It was called "Semi-Charmed Life." Wait, did I just blow your mind? I'm sure I did. #SorrynotSorry
“Close But No Cigar” is a delight in every conceivable way. The lyrics are hilarious and unforgettable, the groove slinky and undeniable and the shout along chorus infectious and insanely catchy.
Nothing is ever good enough for the simultaneously lucky and unlucky in love creep singing the song but “Close But Cigar” hits its mark beautifully.
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