The landlord is probably to be seen as a representation of God. Accordingly his property will be the gift of eternal life which he gives out under certain conditions. The beneficiary, or tenant, is the speaker. If the conditions are fulfilled, the gift will become permanent. The song itself is made up of the speaker’s words to God as he attempts to force God into keeping his side of the bargain, while finding excuses for reneging on his own side of it.
The first verse has the speaker sycophantically addressing God as ‘Dear landlord’, and then pleading that a price not be put on his soul. This plea immediately brings out a bitterness in his character. It seems to imply that God has put a price on everything else, thereby making it next to impossible for the impoverished speaker to scrape by. His soul is the last thing he has and he doesn’t want to have to forego it just because he can’t afford to meet God’s extortionate demands. The payment being withheld is presumably moral, rather than pecuniary as it would be with an earthly landlord. In other words in order to save his soul, and keep his eternal life, the speaker is being expected to live morally.
The excuses the speaker makes for not so doing are that his ‘burden is heavy’ and that his ‘dreams are beyond control’. The burden can be interpreted as those moral responsibilities the reward for whose fulfilment will be eternal life. The claim that his dreams are beyond control looks like a straightforward refusal to accept due responsibility for his own actions.
Next follows what looks like a bribe:
‘When that steamboat whistle blows
I’m gonna give you all I got to give’
The whistle can be taken as death – the summons to confront God in the afterlife. And the steamboat would be the equivalent of Charon’s vessel in Greek mythology used for ferrying souls into the underworld. If the underworld is taken to be hell, the metaphor might seem to hint that hell is the speaker’s likely destination.
The two lines provide evidence of the speaker’s guile. They imply that he’s perfectly happy to pay his debt to God, but only on condition that this is done at the very end of his life. On the one hand this is an audacious attempt at striking a disingenuous bargain aimed at allowing him to pursue an immoral life which will be repented only on his deathbed. On the other, the speaker’s language seems cunningly designed to make him sound both generous and selfless, as if God should be grateful to get even a postponement of what’s his due.
After patronisingly and presumptuously going on to express his hope that God will receive the offer ‘well’ – in other words not treat it with the contempt it deserves – the speaker proceeds to indulge in further criticism. Whether God is up to receiving it well will depend, he tells him:
‘… on the way that you feel that you live’
The hypocritical implication is that God lives immorally, but nevertheless still might be able to receive the offer graciously if only he can manage to delude himself – ‘feel’ – that his existence is not immoral. Not only is the speaker a thoroughly filthy pot calling a sparkling kettle black, but in so doing he provides evidence of appalling tactlessness. Apparently he has no inkling that to criticise the very person one’s trying to influence is likely to be be counterproductive.
In the second verse the speaker’s technique for winning over the landlord is again sycophantic. ‘Dear landlord’ and:
‘I Know you’ve suffered much’
At the same time, like Satan, he’s presumptive enough to put himself on the same level as the landlord:
‘I know you’ve suffered much
But in this you are not so unique
All of us, at times, we might work too hard
To have it too fast and too much’
The third line, like the first, purports to recognise the weight God is under, in suffering and having to work too hard, as if his well being is uppermost in the speaker’s thoughts.It immediately becomes apparent, however, that the speaker’s obsequiousness is a cover. Really it’s he himself who’s at the forefront of his mind. In saying:
‘But in this you are not so unique’
he highlights his own suffering. His arrogance is incredible, as if he’s trying to bring the landlord down a peg or two for making the most of his own suffering at the cost of not recognising the speaker’s.
The arrogance is further evident in his use of the phrase ‘all of us’ in the lines:
‘All of us, at times, we might work too hard
To have it too fast and too much’
It seems designed to enable the speaker to gain kudos for seeming sympathetic and for admitting excess, while at the same time implicating God in the excess. Furthermore, by seeming to admit that ‘all of us’ might work too hard, he gives the impression of graciously coming down to God’s level – ‘Dear God, I know you work too hard, but don’t worry. Even I do that sometimes.’
Although the speaker is trying to give the impression he indulges in wholesome hard work, it’s clear for two reasons that this is a travesty of the truth. First, the parenthetical ‘at times’ and the ‘might’ which follows it (in ‘All of us, at times, we might work too hard’) seems to be a subtly disguised admittance that he, the narrator, doesn’t actually work all that much.
Secondly, his somewhat obscure wording provides a hint about the true nature of this work. The expressions ‘have it’ and have it ‘too much’ are a clear indication that it’s sexual gratification the speaker works ‘too hard’ to achieve. In the light of this the speaker’s tarring God with the same brush as himself seems all the more preposterous.
The verse ends:
‘And anyone can fill his life up
With things he can see but he just cannot touch’
This can be interpreted in two ways. First, it’s an attempt to justify the extent of his sexual activity – touching, as distinct from merely seeing. He does it by belittling what ‘anyone’ can do, as if it would be out of the question to expect him to stoop to that. And secondly, it might be seen as an excuse for a general acquisition of wealth – the collecting of worldly goods which he could simply have admired from a distance. On either account he is yet again being disingenuous.
In addition the word ‘touch’ has a particular significance. It reminds us of the deprecatory use of ‘feel’ used earlier with respect to God in the line ‘Dependin’ on the way that you feel that you live’. Given the sort of touching the speaker indulges in, his criticism of God for the way he ‘feels’ seems all the more hypocritical.
In the final verse, after the usual obsequious opening, the speaker uses legalistic language to try to win God over:
‘Please don’t dismiss my case’
His choice of language is once again ironic. Unwittingly he seems to be reminding us of the last judgment, and that ultimately all his wiles are going to be fruitless.
The reasons he gives for God’s not dismissing his case, while superficially sounding plausible, are in fact ridiculous:
‘I’m not about to argue
I’m not about to move to no other place’
To start one’s argument by denying one’s about to argue is to exhibit yet more barefaced audacity. He then tries to give an impression of having consideration for a landlord who would otherwise be losing a source of income if he were to go elsewhere. What he’s really doing is trying to wheedle his way into God’s good books by appearing unthreatening, something which the last two lines of the song will give the lie to.
The declaration that he’s not about to go anywhere else might also be taken as a denial that he’s about to die. If so, he’s conveniently forgetting that his death was supposed to be the occasion of his recompensing God. Alternatively he can be taken to be denying that his destination will be anywhere else than heaven. Both interpretations are laden with irony given the allusions to the last judgment and the underworld, combined with what we’ve seen of his character.
In the penultimate pair of lines the speaker might again be seen to be presumptuously putting himself on the same level as the landlord:
‘Now, each of us has his own special gift
And you know this was meant to be true’
The special gift applicable to both God and the speaker is presumably eternal life. The gift of eternal life is supposed to be held permanently – it is ‘meant to be true’, he says. In laying down the law to God,the speaker is once again exhibiting quite extraordinary arrogance. He’s insisting that the original promise of eternal life should not be rescinded – despite the fact that the conditions imposed at the time have not been fulfilled. It would seem that the speaker is expecting God to be true to his promise to him, while at the same time making excuses for not being true to God.
Armed with the promise of eternal life, or so he thinks, the speaker proceeds to blackmail God:
‘And if you don’t underestimate me
I won’t underestimate you’
The chiming of ‘don’t underestimate’ with ‘won’t underestimate’ is designed to create an impression of even-handedness, but nevertheless it’s blackmail. Only if God recognises that the speaker is trustworthy will he condescend to recognise God for what he is. So says this jumped-up Satan.
The song can be seen as a representation of human nature in all its pompous stupidity. Believing he’s capable of deceiving God, the speaker succeeds only in presenting himself as a pleading, bitter, self-pitying, cunning, sycophantic, self-deprecating, tactless, patronising, devious, argumentative, condescending, self-aggrandising, briber and blackmailer. Like Satan, he treats God as if he were an equal and thinks he can outwit him for his own ends. And like Satan we can only assume he’s destined for a most almighty fall.