If Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is a sound contender for the title of “Great American Novel”, then we probably ought to have a debate about the fight to be the “Great American Song”. My submission? Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)“, a song which James Verini says “explains Talking Heads”, but which I would suggest goes far further.
Verini’s essay is essential reading. He calls the song “uncharacteristic”, with a spare arrangement; he says it is a “an ode to the palliative effects of companionship”. Yes, this makes it an unexpectedly direct and involved song for David Byrne to sing, but, as Freedom demonstrates, such a personal subject can also stand for something larger. Brotherhood and strong friendships are bedrocks of America, informing its buddy movies and history alike, and also filling in for what the country’s rugged individualism cannot. But companionship is not a straightforward road. There is a healthy component of anxiety to it, which is fleshed out in “This Must Be The Place…” by dint of the disappointment and resignation in Byrne’s voice, and the occasional glimpses of uneasy imagery (“Eyes that light up / Eyes look through you”, “You’ve got a face with a view”).
America is also about a disparate collection of souls finding a home—or is it just a house? So does Talking Heads’ song speak to us of this unknowing, which probably also explains its repurposing in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. This song is about reaching a promised land, or person, and then just feeling a niggling emptiness, or an overreaching.