Day Eleven: "The Check's In The Mail" from "Weird Al" Yankovic
With “The Check’s In The Mail” Al really began to take advantage of having a virtuoso guitarist and multi-instrumentalist like Rick Derringer as his producer and collaborator. In terms of musical sophistication, the song is light years removed from the sweaty, bare-bones, demo-like intensity of “My Bologna” and “Another One Rides The Bus””
“The Check’s In The Mail” is Al’s version of the adorably cloying, clamorous, dance-hall style ditties Paul McCartney wrote solely to irritate John Lennon and that Beatles fans like myself have come to know and tolerate over the years.
The song also reminds me of one of my favorite weird Beatles oddities, “You Know My Name (Look Up My Number”)", although Lennon actually wrote that bad boy. As with “The Check’s In The Mail”, the lyrical conceit of "The Check's In The Mail" feels like a challenge and/or a dare. “The Check’s In The Mail” boldly asks why a song can’t just be an endless series of cliches and aphorisms slickly joined together to form a singularly all-inclusive smarmy spiel of total inauthenticity.
On a similar note “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number) asks how many times the title phrase can be repeated in a variety of different musical setting while remaining a coherent, even catchy song. The answer? As many times as they’d like on account of being The Beatles.
Like The Beatles at their most twee, “The Check’s In The Mail” has a distinct Dance Hall feel to it that hearkens back to the music of the 1930s and 40s. Derringer’s peppy ukulele and banjo contribute to the sense of vaudevillian exuberance, as does a percussive breakdown that sounds more than a little like the drums stepping out to perform a lively little tap-dance.
“The Check’s In The Mail” takes its title from a popular cliche that’s also a popular lie. “The check’s in the mail” is so innately associated with dishonesty, and poor moral character, and disreputable people making false promises, that it seems heretical and wrong to ever employ the phrase if a check genuinely has been sent out.
The check’s in the mail is only the start of the song’s loving catalog of glib cliches, an affectionate litany of the hackneyed things sketchy people say to blow people off. If the “check’s in the mail” is not blatantly false then it is, like everything else the narrator of “The Check’s In The Mail” says, at the very least devoid of sincerity.
The narrator begins the song simultaneously trying to blow off, compliment and soothe someone who has clearly had enough of their shenanigans. The narrator is a would-be star-maker, a quintessential show-business schmoozing aficionado full of insincere compliments and empty bluster who grows increasingly desperate over the course of the song as his empty words are met with genuine anger and aggression.
Al may be a perpetual outsider but he’s also a product of late 1970s/early 1980s Los Angeles show-business. I can only imagine how many music industry phonies he must have encountered in his unlikely path to superstardom, how many interchangeable suits he met whose words were as flattering and ego-inflating as they were ultimately meaningless.
In “The Check’s In The Mail” only a verse separates the narrator breezily assuring a would-be protege, “Baby won't you sign on the dotted line/I’m gonna make your dreams come true!” from “You say you hate my guts you wanna take me to court/And you got yourself a lawyer with a three piece suit?”
By the end of the song, the singer is so befuddled he’s’ getting his platitudes mixed up and proposing, “Why don't you leave a message with my girl/I’ll have lunch with your machine.”
“The Check’s In The Mail” is about our infernal capacity to we use words to conceal meaning rather than to express it. Yet as with so much of Al’s music, there is an underlying ambivalence as well. The song is about the meaninglessness of cliches, both individually and as a whole. Yet the song is also about the breezy pleasure cliches afford us as well, how soothing they can be in their familiarity.
Half of the song’s infectious joy lies in the obvious pleasure Al takes in playing the ultimate air-kissing, deal-making Los Angeles phony. “The Check’s In The Mail” is sneakily satirical in chronicling how easy and fun it is for the right/wrong people to abuse the English language, and its glittering, irresistible catalog of endlessly recycled phrases, to use a whole lot of words to say nothing much at all.