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. Continue reading