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The Meaning of Cage the Elephant’s “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked”

Released in 2008 as the third single from their self-titled debut album, “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” was a breakout hit for American rock band Cage the Elephant. The rebellious track was the first song that many people heard from them, helping to pave the way for what has become a massively successful career.

According to a 2010 interview with USA Today, frontman Matt Schultz wrote the lyrics to “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” on a piece of drywall while working as a plumber, prior to the band’s success:

One of my co-workers was a drug dealer (on the side) and always talked about wanting to quit that business. I asked him why he didn’t and he said, ‘There’s no rest for the wicked.’ I ran out to my car and wrote that down on this old crusty paper plate. I wrote the lyrics on drywall at work. So somewhere in Bowling Green, those lyrics are written behind someone’s toilet.

Matt Schultz on the writing of “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked”.

Based on real life events, the lyrics present a series of three scenarios where people involved in “wicked” scenarios and dealings are asked why they do the things they do: a prostitute, a burglar, and a fraud. Each of them replies with the same phrase that Schultz recalls hearing his co-worker say way back when, that there “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked”.

“Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” Lyrics Meaning

Now that we’ve got the backstory covered, let’s take a closer look at the story being told by the lyrics, starting with the first verse, where Schultz sings of an encounter with a prostitute:

I was walking down the street when out the corner of my eye
I saw a pretty little thing approaching me
She said, “I never seen a man, who looks so all alone
Oh, could you use a little company?
If you pay the right price, your evening will be nice
And you can go and send me on my way.”
I said, “You’re such a sweet young thing, why you do this to yourself?”
She looked at me and this is what she said:

First verse to “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” by Cage the Elephant.

The story here is fairly straightforward – Schultz encounters a pretty young woman while walking down the street, who offers him company in exchange for money. She says that they’ll have a nice evening, and then they will part ways.

Rather than indulging in her offer, Schultz turns to her and tells her that she’s pretty and young, and asks why she would do such a thing?

The chorus provides the answer he seeks:

“Oh there ain’t no rest for the wicked
Money don’t grow on trees
I got bills to pay, I got mouths to feed
There ain’t nothing in this world for free
Oh no, I can’t slow down, I can’t hold back
Though you know, I wish I could
Oh no there ain’t no rest for the wicked
Until we close our eyes for good”

Chorus to “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” by Cage the Elephant.

She doesn’t have time to “give it a rest” — this is her way of life and she’s got to make a living. She can’t slow down or hold back now, despite wishing she could change things. She believes that this is her path until the day she dies.

The second verse depicts Schultz walking down that same street fifteen minutes later, when he encounters a thief:

Not even fifteen minutes later I’m still walking down the street
When I saw the shadow of a man creep out of sight
And then he swept up from behind, he put a gun up to my head
He made it clear he wasn’t looking for a fight
He said, “Give me all you’ve got, I want your money, not your life
But if you try to make a move, I won’t think twice”
I told him, “You can have my cash, but first you know I gotta ask
What made you want to live this kind of life?”

Second verse to “Aint No Rest for the Wicked” by Cage the Elephant.

Schultz sings of being shaken down by a burglar with a gun to his head, who clearly stated that he wanted his money rather than struggle, but will not think twice to pull the trigger if he notices any fast moves.

Denying the man, Schultz says that he doesn’t have any cash. But he poses the same question to this man as he posed to the young woman earlier, why does he live this way?

The chorus repeats itself again, with the same lyrics being applied to this man’s situation as were applied to the prostitute. He’s already barreling down the path of wickedness, and there’s no turning back now, because he’s got people counting on him.

This concept suggests that once you take a step into the world of wickedness, it is difficult to find your way back out. You can never stop, because the damage has been done and the consequences are too great. So you’re resigned to sing, “there ain’t no rest for the wicked.”

In the third and final verse, we encounter yet another person on the path of wickedness — a fraudulent preacher, arrested on live television for stealing money from the church:

Well now a couple hours passed and I was sitting in my house
The day was winding down and coming to an end
And so I turned on the TV and flipped it over to the news
And what I saw I almost couldn’t comprehend
I saw a preacher man in cuffs, he’d taken money from the church
He’d stuffed his bank account with righteous dollar bills
But even still I can’t say much because I know we’re all the same
Oh yes, we all seek out to satisfy those thrills

Third verse to “Aint No Rest for the Wicked” by Cage the Elephant.

At first, Schultz is surprised at what he sees, but concludes in the end that he can’t judge the preacher. After encountering all these people on the path to wickedness, he comes to the conclusion that there’s a little bit of this sinister spirit inside of each and everyone one of us.

The final chorus is sung from the collective point of view, saying “We” rather than “I”.

You know there ain’t no rest for the wicked
Money don’t grow on trees
We got bills to pay, we got mouths to feed
There ain’t nothing in this world for free
Oh no we can’t slow down, we can’t hold back
Though you know we wish we could
Oh no there ain’t no rest for the wicked
Until we close our eyes for good

Final chorus to “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” by Cage the Elephant.

Watch the music video for “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” below.

Also check out a live acoustic version from 2011 and the Unpeeled version from 2017.

“Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” (Live Acoustic, 2011)

“Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” (Unpeeled, 2017)

Usage In Popular Media

Cage the Elephant’s breakout hit has also been used extensively in media and popular culture, further contributing to the song’s legacy.

Notably, it was in the opening and closing sequences for the popular console shooter Borderlands (2009).

Other instances of “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” in media include:

  • A commercial for the TNT series Leverage (2010)
  • The soundtrack to the film Bounty Hunter (2010)
  • An episode of The Vampire Diaries (“Isobel”, 2010)
  • A third season episode of The Jersey Shore (2011)
  • The opening of the Canadian reality television show Yukon Gold (2013-2017)
  • The pilot episode to Fox’s Lucifer (2016)
  • & more.