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I think that overall the song is about how insatiable we all are: When it gets too cold, just turn the heat up...but wait! Now it's so hot it's engulfed in flames!! Turn it back down!! There doesn't ever seem to be a reachable happy medium in life. The song says that maybe the thermostat should be "disconnected", that we shouldn't be able to control the temperature, that maybe we should just play the hand we're dealt with. Our minds see this, but our bodies have minds of their own, which want instant gratification, and instead of following this advice, they just continue driving themselves knowing that they're out of oil. Another great Linnell song about self-destruction with a message!! - Stiddy 21:33, May 8, 2004

Yup, John laughing at human nature again, how we are just never ever satisfied. I think "the mind of its own" is referring to the mechanical device, though -- it's the kind of thing one says when complaining about the stupid thing. My favorite part lately is toward the end, how the density of the horns creates a claustrophobic effect as Linnell's pitch keeps rising... I imagine the flames flickering higher about his neck as the color spectrum of the scene shifts to orange, red, and yellow. --Nehushtan (talk) 22:14, 5 May 2014 (EDT)

Sense of control[edit]

Mechanisms, tricks, and cleverness are ultimately unreliable, prone to wear out, and we could do without them -- but they're so useful, and fun to fiddle with. And they give us a sense of control, which may be entirely pretended: In many office buildings, there are fake thermostats on the walls; they don't actually regulate the temperature (they are, in fact, disconnected from the central heating system) but they allow the office drones to pretend that they have control over their atmosphere by turning the "heat" up and down. --fubar o. 13:28, May 11, 2004

Interpretation 3[edit]

I'ma thinkin' this song is about how we shouldn't rely too much on technology. The first verse describes a person becoming an unnecessary part of a car operating. Your hand loses control of the stick shift, and the car and the wheel have learned how to operate themselves, and apparently how to do basic math. To give the human a sense of security, of course, the car asks the driver if he/she still wants to drive even though it will soon be unable to due to lack of oil. All you have left is a lousy thermostat, it's the one thing that you can still control, the only thing justifying your existance. You may be inferior to machines in every way, but you can still change the temperature, darnit! But this parade is being rained on. Your precious thermostat is unreliable, and is going to explode if you don't stop overusing it. But the people shout out together, "Turn it up, turn it down!" It's all you have left! And so, the thermostat blows, and people are no longer necessary in the world. They still shout to command the thermostat in a poor attempt to remain in control, but I'm sure it won't be long before we have "The Terminator" happen all over again.

In addition, this may also be a metaphor for the fact that people have hardly any control of their own lives, and the one unimportant thing that they can control isn't even stable. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 20:24, March 31, 2005

Interpretation 4[edit]

My idea is somewhat similar to the above, but taken in a different direction. As explained above, the car is becoming so advanced that the human is unnecessary to operate it. I picture the verses being sung by either the car's designers, or maybe even the car itself. In any case, the claim is that the thermostat is unreliable, not because it's defective, but simply because it's controlled by human hands. Humans, quite simply, can't be controlled by the car, and therefore the car can't control the thermostat either. So, all it can do is sit there saying, "You know, you can't be trusted with working something. It makes things unreliable." But the humans simply retort with something that just boils the machines' blood. "Turn it up, turn it down!" and thus, they adjust the thermostat anytime they dang well feel like it. But, lo and behold, the thermostat catches fire. The car now says "Ha! I told you so!" The humans pull through this, however, and continue to use the thermostat as they see fit, completely ignoring their more intellegent car.

Basically, if you wanna ditch all the technology whatnot in the song, it's about the fact that though things in your life (the thermostat) may go wrong, you're the one in charge of it, and need to act accordingly. Don't just give up your life to fate's whimsy (or the car). —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 19:56, October 5, 2005

The body in rebellion[edit]

There is a TMBG theme of losing control of one's body, of one's body as foreign and misbehaving and even unrecognizable. My Man, Montana, Am I Awake, I've Got A Fang, are examples. In End of the Tour, the speaker envisions his body as an auto, sailing along full of anxious squabbling selves, and compares a relationship to a fiery car crash.

I think the speaker and the car are one here, too, and the speaker is uncomfortable and disconcerted and can't get himself regulated - turn it up, turn it down, turn it up, turn it down again - but he is never comfortable.

The speaker tells us that the car is not under his control, apt to burst into flame, and he can't even tell when it might happen:

  • When the hands that operate the motor lose control of the lever
  • When the mind of its own in the wheel puts two and two together*
  • When the indicator says you're out of oil should you continue driving anyway?
  • There's a thermostat that regulates the temperature
  • That might not be reliable, that should be disconnected


  • Or was it a loud explosion?
  • Or is the thermostat engulfed in flames or is it just me?

In other words, the car (my self as machine) has a rebellious mind of its own and I have no idea how to treat it to make it behave. Finally, it explodes! Yikes.

~Is the thermostat engulfed in flames or is it just me~ is a pun - am I correct that the thermostat is on fire OR am I on fire and it makes the thermostat looks as if it's engulfed in flames. This also dovetails neatly with another theme of TMBG songs - being overcome by fire: Statue Got Me High, Rest Awhile, End of the Tour. The fire might be romantic passion, as in End of the Tour, or simply be passion in general, a source of heat and destruction. You can overlay sexual passion easily on fire imagery, and as much as I like to, I know that is actually my own prurient mind at work, so I will go with passion in the sense of intense emotion, emotion that can destroy or hurt you.

Alternatively, the speaker may be wrestling with some part of his life over which he has no control, not himself, and envisions his poor stewardship as causing disaster, which causes him anxiety. ~Christina Miller 12:54, October 6, 2005

I agree with Christina's interpretation above, the thermostat in someone's brain has gone haywire and now he's perpetually wracked by alternating fever and chills. --The Cowch 03:55, July 13, 2008

John Henry themes[edit]

Another John Henry song about car accidents and potential road death... to join Subliminal, AKA Driver, End Of The Tour, Sleeping In The Flowers. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 18:45, February 16, 2006

Wow! I never noticed that theme! Granted, not all of them (namely Sleeping In The Flowers and The End Of The Tour) are entirely about car crashes, but it's definitely interesting to note. Good catch! :) ~Anna Ng hears your words. 01:40, September 19, 2006
Also Dirt Bike. -- Thread Bomb (talk) 02:19, 23 March 2020 (EDT)

Interpretation 7[edit]

I agree with many of the above interpretations. To me, this song makes me think of manic depression, or rather, the intense emotional fluctuations of the temperament of the sensitive intellect, whether in an introspective, creative, social, or relational context. fractal tact 17:00, September 19, 2007

Interpretation 8[edit]

This is as good a song as any to relate my theory. Perhaps better than most. I honetly think that the songs chronicle the life experiences of the band (well duo of songwriters specifically) I am not trying to denigrate their genius in any way. I just think they are completely imbued with music & musical inspiration. So yeah they have car trouble perhaps an oil leak. Perhaps something else. either way it comes out in song. Seriously, I have been listening (and loving) them for years & their songs follow a life pattern. to the point where my daughter the other day was wishing they had a cSAT prep song. I told her wait a few year until Henry was mid-high school. I totally love this & pretty much all their songs. Please don't get me wrong. But I honestly think if you listen long enough & close enough you will find more of a diary than a philosophical treatise. Then again I could be wrong. they have surprised me many times before. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 05:13, June 29, 2008


I agree with the technology-taking-over interpretations. I think the word that best describes the narrator is paranoid. -MetalDetector 16:48, July 27, 2009


It's an awesome song about a possibly faulty thermostat.....that's it. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 11:44, December 30, 2013

Agreed. It's a whimsical song about thermostats, with the usual Linnellian sense of impending doom. No meaning beyond that. -- Thread Bomb (talk) 02:21, 23 March 2020 (EDT)

Evil thermostat[edit]

The narrator works himself into such a frenzy over the malfunctioning device that even his very voice is flanged into another plane of existence and fades out of our hearing. He'll never understand because his molecules are now scattered across the car interior. But we all know it was the possessed temperature-controlling mechanism that sent him to his doom. --MisterMe (talk) 09:22, 26 January 2017 (EST)


Clearly this is a song about control systems, a branch of engineering also known as cybernetics! A thermostat is the archetypal cybernetic system, and the other classic example is the Centrifugal Governor, which takes control of a steam engine "when the hands that operate the motor lose control of the lever".