Many find the message within the song off-putting. The objection is a sound one, but I suggest the despair and despondency Waits tensely growls over the dark, carnivalesque polka music - comprised chiefly of nightmarish tuba notes, disparate horn riffs, and muted drumbeats - offers a far more brutal and honest assessment a world without God than the visions of contented, pleasure-seeking life of pure materialism promulgated by our secular, atheistic rulers and embraced by almost everyone except the deeply religious.
The song is a despondent yet defiant declaration of disgust with the toothpaste-white, television-drama fantasy in which most contemporary people reside. Waits disregards the rainbows and sunshine wrapping paper and gets right to the corrupt core of a contemporary world abandoned by God. The autopsy is a bleak one. God has forsaken man for delighting in sin and corruption. A ruthless dog-eat-dog zeitgeist reigns over the morally desolate landscape, which has been reduced to a slum tenement owned by an absentee landlord.
One of the few reprieves Waits offers in the tune is the acknowledgement of God. Unlike our contemporary world, which rejects God outright, the song's narrator at least acknowledges the existence of the Creator and both relishes and laments His absence. Despite the acidic nature of the lyrics, the song does not level its bitter criticism at God, but at humanity. The singer suggests God has left and refuses to intervene because the decay humanity has unleashed upon itself and the Earth has become unstoppable and irreversible.
In the following, I offer a cursory analysis of the song's lyrics. The lyrics are simple enough to not require any sort of academic interpretation. Instead, what I offer below are merely thoughts and elaborations on the ideas the song presents. I do not intend nor do I claim any sort of definitive interpretation of the song, nor do I wish to speculate what Waits may have actually meant. When I refer to singer or narrator, I am not suggesting Waits espouses these views himself personally; I am focusing on the singer as a voice entirely disembodied from Waits. My exploration takes the world Waits presents as a given and, hopefully, offers insights into how one might avoid being poisoned by such a world of predatory nihilistic despair.
I'd sell your heart to the junk-man, baby
For a buck, for a buck
In my view, these lines represent the real core of the philosophy presiding over our world today. It is the ice-cold heart that beats glacially beneath the niceties, the politeness, and the warm, fuzzy words. This could serve as the motto for every oppressive bureaucracy we have established and for every dead-eyed individual working within them in the name of care and cooperation.
Outside the bureaucracies, these lines are the driving force of loveless psychopaths driven solely by self-interest, lust, ego, and greed. These words represent the banality and pettiness of evil - the willingness to steal something vital and valuable and exchange it for the cost of a cup of coffee. This is the philosophy of damnation writ large.
If you're looking for someone to pull you out of that ditch
You're out of luck, you're out of luck
To me, this speaks of individual indifference to the suffering of others. It is the anesthetized compassion that lays hidden beneath virtue-signalling and altruism. The complete inversion of real Christian love.
The ship is sinking
The ship is sinking
The ship is sinking
These lines mark the despair beneath the surface of our contemporary world - the impending sense of material doom masking a spiritual wasteland. Perhaps this is what fuels the rampant hedonism and pointless pleasure seeking; the desire to get one's kicks in full in the knowledge that the outhouse will one day go up in flames.
There's a leak, there's a leak, in the boiler room
The poor, the lame, the blind
An extension of the ship metaphor, but I am confused by the connection between the boiler room and the poor, the lame, the blind. On the one hand, I see the connection as nothing more than an emphasis on tragedy. Presumably, the poor, the lame, and the blind are victims of a sinking ship they had little hand in designing. On the other hand, perhaps the poor, the lame, and the blind are manning the boiler room, which could be regarded as a reference to the neglected and downtrodden working class.
Who are the ones that we kept in charge?
Killers, thieves, and lawyers
The accusation is harsh, but accurate. The Establishment certainly comprises all three. Killers, thieves and lawyers stand in antithesis to Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. The vile shape of the world is hardly surprising if such people lead it.
God's away, God's away,
God's away on Business. Business.
The refrain draws attention to the theme of God forsaking man. The lines resonate with allusions to God's wrath against Sodom and Gomorrah, but in this case God appears too disgusted to even expend energy on punishing humanity for its sins. Instead, he turns his back on his Creation, seemingly indifferent to the impending collapse his absence will inevitably bring about.
These lines are, of course, nonsense to anyone who acknowledges God as a loving Creator. Regardless of how bad things ultimately are, real Christians know God would never forsake the world He created. If anything, these lines speak to modern man's lack of faith and self-disgust. The words also contain the kind of bitter resentment typically spouted by those who shake their fists in rage against God's apparent "injustice" and "cruelty."
Digging up the dead with a shovel and a pick
It's a job, it's a job.
Perhaps an allusion to the gravedigger scene in Hamlet, these lines recall the two clowns calmly jesting about death and mortality. The cold yet callous philosophy of life as a universal joke; the emptiness of modern work, all of which also becomes little more than a tremendous and deadening waste of time and effort. Also, the excuse of the job - the relinquishing of moral and spiritual responsibility for a paycheck.
Bloody moon rising with a plague and a flood
Join the mob, join the mob
Conventional symbols of doom and destruction are supported by the call to give up one's individuality and join the collective, presumably to protest or express outrage. The fomenting of hate and shaking of pitchforks or perhaps the cowering masses fleeing in terror. The word mob could also refer to organized crime in its various forms, be it street gangs or official governments. In a doomed world where all is permitted, there no barrier to joining the dark side. For the narrator, such action appear pragmatic and prudent. If you can't beat them, join them.
It's all over
It's all over
It's all over
More despair and hopelessness. Woebegone beyond all understanding. No hope of salvation.
God damn there's always such a big temptation
To be good, To be good
These lines strike me as the most interesting. Despite his own despair and corruption in a despairing and corrupt world, the narrator still admits to feeling temptations "to be good." Ironically, he appears to neither relish nor welcome the big temptation. On the one hand, the temptation could simply signify the desire to be good in a pedestrian sense - to be nice and to good onto others.
On the other hand, this latent temptation to be good could refer to the narrator's sense of his divine self or true self, which, despite the layer of corruption and pessimism, still remains, flickering like the flame of an all-but-forgotten candle. Whichever it may be, the temptation to be good is still there, which to me reveals that God may not be away on business after all. God is there, but everyone, the narrator included, rejects Him. By refusing to heed the temptation to be good, everyone inevitable rejects the Good and actively embraces evil instead.
There's always free cheddar in a mousetrap, baby
It's a deal, it's a deal
The most effective way to smother the temptation to be good is to immerse oneself in the materialistic and hedonistic pleasures the world offers seemingly free of charge. But as the lines paradoxically reveal, the free cheddar in the mousetrap is anything but free. Sin has consequences and depraved and degenerate pleasures carry the seeds of destruction, yet most are more than willing to strike such a bargain, especially if it helps neutralize the temptation to be good.
I narrow my eyes like a coin slot baby,
Let her ring, let her ring.
The simile reveals to objectification of man and the commodification of the soul. The narrowing of the eyes implies a menacing glare, a predatory focus of pure self interest - eyes that stare out at other beings and see nothing more than prey or profit. Perhaps there is a dark allusion to the indulgences coin box in a church - when coins ring, souls spring.
Whatever the case, the song leaves us in the same place it met us - in a world God has abandoned - a world of alienated beings existing in a landscape of shattered souls and abject hopelessness.
The song presents a bleak and rotten view of humanity, and I must admit there are times I agree with the pernicious pessimism permeating the tune, but unlike the voice in the song, I have never accepted the notion that God could turn his back on his creation.
On the contrary, it is we who have turned our backs on God by not heeding and giving in to the temptation to be good. The temptation exists. It is real and it is there, even within the smothering blackness the song presents. Yet we ignore it, resist it, and ultimately reject it. And for what? An aphotic existence of hopelessness tempered by vulgar pleasures and debauched distractions.
God's not away on business - we are.
Perhaps this is the message the song ultimately conveys.