The song is about the mental state of the narrator, and the different ways one can react in the face of adversity. Because everything is from the narrator’s point of view, we also get an insight into his character.
The first verse suggests a journey, perhaps a hopeless journey from the narrator’s house to that of an object of his affections. That there is a journey is apparent in that whereas most lines begin ‘Sign on the … says‘, the second line begins ‘Sign on the door said’, perhaps indicating that the narrator has left his house and – as the third line implies – is on the street as he undertakes a journey. The porch mentioned in the verse’s final two lines would then appear to be at his destination. Whether the journey is actual or imagined, the signs he imagines on the window, door, street and porch are reflections of his developing thoughts. Their manifestation as signs perhaps indicates that he feels oppressed, or that he feels the circumstances of his life are out of his control.
The thoughts themselves give further indications of his character. Feeling lonely, he becomes maudlin and in so doing seems to cast the blame for his unhappiness elsewhere. ‘No Company Allowed’ shows he thinks it is the fault of others that he is not allowed to have the company he desires. We then get an indication in ‘Y’ Don’t Own Me’ that he’s miscasting the blame. The actual reason for his loneliness is rejection on account of his possessiveness. If he is indeed possessive, the fault for his rejection would seem to lie with him. In the transcript of the song the capitals in each line indicate that the narrator sees the signs as cold and impersonal, representing things he can do nothing about. However the colloquial tone – ‘Y” for ‘You’ in ”Y’Don’t Own Me’ – tells us that these are words spoken to him in a conversation he actually had and in which he presumably could have responded if he’d had a suitable response. That he doesn’t respond suggests that he is at least partially responsible for how things have turned out.
While the idiomatic ‘Three’s A Crowd’ might mean that the girl has acquired a boyfriend around the same time as rejecting the narrator, it could equally imply that the girl was already attached and therefore that the narrator’s attentions are out of place. The latter view is lent support In the next verse where the tone – ‘her boyfriend’ – makes the couple’s relationship seem established. If so, it is inappropriate that their leaving for California is presented critically – they ‘changed their tune’ – as if they had no right to run their own lives. Again this suggests that the narrator’s self-pity is out of place.
The rest of the second verse has the narrator again passing the buck. A friend is attributed with having given advice in the form of an absurd generalisation – that girls from Brighton are to be avoided because they are inconstant (‘like the moon’). Clearly the narrator rightly didn’t heed the warning at the time, but now appears to regret not having done so. Given the absurdity of the warning, and the fact that the narrator saw fit to press ahead anyway, the regret at not having heeded it would appear to be a disguised way of achieving solace by disingenuously blaming the girl for not being constant.
There are three place names in the song and these are significant. The girl is from Brighton, the first syllable perhaps a hint that the narrator associates her with brightness – contrasting with the ‘nothing but rain’ with which he characterises his own life. The narrator mentions that the lovers go to California. The name is delicate in sound and likely to be associated in his mind with a leisurely lifestyle, gold and varied geography. It’s an indication of his jealousy. By contrast he settles on Utah for himself – a state with a harsh sounding name and barren geography.
The maudlin tone of the second verse continues into the short third verse. Rain, wet and sleet can be taken as representing the narrator’s state of mind. Reference to ‘tonight’ and the idiomatic expression, ‘Looks like’, ‘Sure gonna’ and ‘Hope that’, indicate that we’re getting the narrator’s words as he thought them. It becomes apparent that he’s unduly pessimistic. The judgement that it ‘Looks like a-nothing but rain’ leads to the conclusion that it’s going to be ‘wet tonight on Main Street’. What started as a prophecy of universal doom has ended up as no more than a temporally and spatially localised nuisance. The final line ‘Hope that it don’t sleet’ suggests that the narrator is enjoying seeing things in an unnecessarily bad light since sleet is not significantly worse than rain. Furthermore, the fear of sleet seems inconsistent with the earlier judgement that there’d be ‘nothing but rain’ – again suggesting that the narrator is determined to see things in as bad a light as possible.
At first the final verse seems to represent the narrator’s determination to put his problems behind him. The reference to ‘rainbow’ in ‘catch rainbow trout’ suggests that he can see the end of his misery represented earlier by rain. That the narrator is in a more positive frame of mind would also be so if ‘Build me a cabin’ and ‘Marry me a wife’ are taken as meaning ‘I will build myself a cabin’ and ‘I will get married’. However the narrator’s actual use of imperatives renders his tone less assertive. There’s a hint of perceived helplessness as if he’d like it if someone else built him the cabin, and even if someone else got him married. Similarly for ‘catch rainbow trout’ and ‘Have a bunch of kids’. He seems to be wanting to abrogate responsibility for his own future happiness. His being called ‘Pa’, something utterly superficial, is itself only achievable in that it would depend on the actions of the children rather than himself.
In the light of these things, the narrator’s, and the song’s, conclusion – ‘That must be what it’s all about’ – can be taken in two ways. It can be seen as positive – him grasping the importance of seizing opportunities and recognizing that unhappiness can be temporary. Or it can be taken as summing up his pusillanimous outlook. On the one hand, then, he can be taken as seeing rainbows where previously there was rain, i.e. seeing that he can marry and have children despite having previously suffered rejection. On the other hand he can be seen as allowing himself to drift along at the mercy of events.