In 1983 Talking Heads released “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” as the closing track to their fifth studio album, Speaking in Tongues. Spanning 4:53, the recording is arguably the only love song penned by David Byrne (if you disqualify songs about architecture), with the tagline “Naïve Melody” added to temper the single’s atypical earnestness. To its greatest merit, the song finds perfect situation amongst a multitude of contrasts. It is comforting yet wistful, languid yet energetic, tender yet powerful, all whilst melding an insatiable hook with airy synthesizers. With such a sweeping scope the song was almost written to be reconstructed, as it has been many times. Spanning a multitude of shapes and sentiments, “This Must Be the Place” covers inhabit a genre unto themselves. While they encompass a large breadth of stylistic terrain, these covers can be broadly classified in two categories: the tender and the powerful. Let’s take things slow and begin with the former.
The essential starting point in the realm of “This Must Be the Place” is undoubtedly Shawn Colvin’s rendition. Armed only with a guitar, faint synthesizers, and her voice, the South Dakotan singer-songwriter teases every hint of sincerity out of the track. Her lilting voice leaves space for emotions to weigh heavy, exuding a visceral warmth. A comparable version is that of Michael Jerome Browne. Here the synthesisers are foregone and the melody (naïve or otherwise) is molded into a restrained acoustic piece, complemented only by Browne’s craggy vocals. Unlike Colvin and Browne, the American singer-songwriter Iron & Wine deconstructs the melody and expands the instrumentation. A loping drum beat and leisurely slide guitar guide the song into Country & Folk territory. Stylistically, it departs vastly from the original piece, while still remaining unmistakably reminiscent. The final performance in this softer vein is delivered by The New Standards. Diverging from most efforts, the group masks any semblance of joyfulness by bleating saxophones and cacophonous chimes, an arresting testament to the expansive emotional terrain covered by a single song.
On the other end of the spectrum are the songs that wield emotional energy comparable to Byrne’s original. Canadian indie darlings Arcade Fire, a band who’ve earned their bread playing stirring and emotive music, have previously paid tribute in concert. Their version, dominated by bombastic drums and chiming steel drums, manages to sonically embody hopefulness. Frontman Win Butler’s voice sails amongst pulsing percussion and burrows deep into the listener. Jam band legends String Cheese Incident insert themselves into the field to a similar effect. Informed by the jam rock penchant for exploration, the tune occasionally stretches past ten minutes, peppered by flamenco guitar and a pipe organ. In contrast, Miles Fisher’s rendition is tight and calculated. His voice, sputtering and auto-tuned, begins the track a cappella. As the piece progresses, subtle additions are made until it is fleshed into an orchestra of electronica. Like any organism, Fisher’s effort functions wholly as the interaction of lesser parts. That is also a common construct of jazz music, as exemplified by Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox’s take, in which a polished female vocalist flaunts her talent atop a swinging brass band. It is classy in spades, while still being fun and catchy. Linking each artist in this category is their ability to preserve the original song’s vitality. In their own unique fashion each rendition harnesses the life and vigour of Byrne’s crafting, repackaging what made his original so special.
The very concept of categorizations is muddled by Strand of Oaks, the folk rock project of Hoosier Timothy Showalter. Dodging any compartmentalization the attempt cannot be classified as tender nor powerful. Instead, it hangs in a stasis both placating and uplifting. A rising synth line carries a dizzying melody, underpinned by a steady cymbal beat. Showalter’s voice is controlled but reveals a folk-weary strain. Unlike all other renditions, it draws strength in being withdrawn and in doing so marries the tenderness and the power. In this fashion, Strand of Oak’s take on “This Must Be the Place” encapsulates the breadth of emotional energy present in Byrne’s original.
Naturally, this list is not comprehensive. New groups like The Lumineers and Walk the Moon have recently tendered covers, following in the path of MGMT and The Counting Crows. Likewise, the song will continue to be reshaped by artists of all genres, in an ever-expanding multitude of parsings and directions. In a true sign of craftsmanship, David Byrne has provided fodder for a legacy of recreation and inspiration; however, as the man himself says, “the less we say about it the better/ We’ll make it up as we go along.”