SONG MEANING: “Sleep on the Floor” by The Lumineers is a song about running away to big cities and trying “seize the day” outside of one’s own small town. Considering The Lumineers’ rocketship-ride to fame, you can guess that they’re writing about themselves here. To find out more, keep reading!
I’ve already explained “Ophelia,” “Cleopatra,” and “Angela,” and now it’s time for “Sleep on the Floor.” This song follows the other three in tone and style, but this is the first one I’ve done that the title of which is not directly about a female character. There is still a story being told here, but things are a bit more vague.
In an interview at the iHeartRadio Concert, the band explained the song a little:
It’s just about, I think, [how] people move to big cities, whether it’s New York or LA, certain cities have these promises implied. You’re gonna go there, and you’re gonna fulfill that promise, you’re gonna catch that dream that you had in your head. And when you go there and it doesn’t happen, that’s sort of a reaction to that. It was kind of interesting to go to Denver of all places, and that’s where we finally started getting some movement, or some traction, and we began to tour as a real band would. And I found that there was so much restriction in these expensive cities, it kind of kills your artistry. If you’re trying to do what we were trying to do, which was tour a lot.
“Sleep on the Floor” is, in general, about moving away to big cities and leaving the small ones, but there’s so much more to the song than that. Let’s dig into it.
You can listen if you like. I’ve added “Sleep on the Floor” and The Lumineers’ whole Cleopatra album to my Spotify playlist “Clifford Stumme’s Pop Prerogative.” Feel free to follow the playlist!
What does “Sleep on the Floor” by The Lumineers mean? Line-by-line analysis.
Into and Outro
Sandwiching the rest of the song, the intro and outro are very similar and both develop the same theme of leaving a small town before it’s too late. Wesley Schultz sings, “Pack yourself a toothbrush, dear / Pack yourself a favorite blouse / Take a withdrawal slip, take all of your savings out.” The narrator is a guy singing to his girlfriend, telling her that they need to leave town or “[w]e might never make it out.” He explains that he “was not born to drown.” Living in the small town he’s in isn’t helping him to accomplish his dreams, and he wants to do something bigger.
The outro changes a little, and the last two lines are, “‘Cause if we don’t leave this town / We might never make it out.” Ending the song this way emphasize the narrator’s sense of urgency that he will have been developing since the intro at the beginning of the song.
The Lumineers’ male narrator tells his girlfriend to “[f]orget what Father Brennan said,” that “[w]e were . . . born in in.” He’s arguing against the Christian doctrine of original sin which holds that all humans are born sinful and separate from God and that they must seek Jesus for saving from their own wrongdoings. The narrator, however, doesn’t hold to this theology and wants instead to innocently seek his dreams and to think about other big ideas.
He wants his girlfriend to leave “a note on your bed / Let you mother know you’re safe.” He explains that by the time “[the mother] wakes / We’ll have driven through the state.” The takeaway here is that he’s trying to “steal her away” and to not just leave town, but to go somewhere far away very intentionally.
But Schultz’s narrator doesn’t just want to take his girlfriend away, he wants to know what she wants and how much she’s dependent on him for her desire for getting a lot out of life. He sings, “If the sun don’t shine on me today / And if the subways flood and bridges break”–bad things happen and my dreams don’t come true–“Will you lay yourself down and dig your grave / Or will you rail against your dying day?”
This last line of the question brings to mind the poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas, where the poet writes, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Thomas wants people to take the most out of life and to avoid apathy just like The Lumineers’ narrator wants to know if his girlfriend is just following him along or actually wants to “rage” and “rail” against the “dying light” too. He wants her to still seek the best out of life even if their hopes fall through.
He continues singing, “And when we looked outside, couldn’t even see the sky.” This is before they left town, and he’s still trying to convince her. And the lack of sky is helping him because it’s emphasizing how closed in they are and how few opportunities they have to chase their dreams.
He asks her, “How do you pay the rent, is it your parents / Or is it hard work, dear, holding the atmosphere?” Whether it’s support on parents for handouts or working unpleasant jobs that keeps life going for the girlfriend, the narrator “don’t wanna live like that.” He wants more, and he wants to go elsewhere. In addition, the answer to his question is also obvious–neither parents nor hard work are holding up the atmosphere. Whether they leave or not, he’s saying, things will still work out, and the world will stay normal.
In the bridge, the narrator sings, “Jesus Christ can’t save me tonight,” to suggest, perhaps, that he’s not okay with comfortably seeking a religious life in a small town. Jesus offers forgiveness for sins, not necessarily excitement or the fulfillment of all dreams.
The narrator tells his girlfriend to “[p]ut on your dress, yes, wear something nice / Decide on me, yea, decide on us / Oh, oh, oh, Illinois, Illinois.” He’s telling her that he’s not going to stay even if she won’t come with him, so her staying is equivalent to them breaking up, and he doesn’t want that. The reference to”Illinois” could suggest that the big town they’re going to is Chicago or that they’re leaving Illinois to go elsewhere.
What’d you think of “Sleep on the Floor”? What’d you think of The Lumineers’ new album? Let me know in the comments, and if you think of something I’ve missed, please let us all know!
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Clifford Stumme has his master’s in English literature and is a blogger and a college instructor/center-director at Liberty University. He likes juggling and reading/writing, and he is married to the wonderful and beautiful Wife April. He thinks pop music is awesome. Seriously awesome.