Think back on a moment you truly, properly felt to be in love. Perhaps you drove out together to the seaside, or secretly held hands at a festival, or you spent all night talking in the living room.
These are some of the strongest imprints in most peoples’ memories. In the melancholy we experience years later, we often find ourselves stretching to bring back the memory. A little self-enclosed universe to temporarily inhabit, untouchable but, hopefully, coherent. We might go on Facebook to voyeuristically search for a picture — not just of that person, but of their city — or open Google Streetview to see if the pine trees on the street are still there.
Perhaps that is what love is: a place that wants to be fully realized.
Thinking of a Place, the sprawling first single off of The War on Drugs’ 2017 A Deeper Understanding, explores this feeling. All of the memories we have of love, of a person that once knocked us off our feet, are fundamentally attached to a location. It is hard to even think back on these moments without thinking about the place that gave birth to it.
Adam Granduciel, the songwriter behind The War on Drugs, knows this very well. The memories he sings about in the first verse are places of love.
It was back in Little Bend that I saw you
Light was changing on the water
Where birds above had flown
There was pain in your eyes
So you vanished in the night
Missouri River in the distance
So I lied upon the lawn
The images are offset against the dark present Granduciel inhabits in the chorus —itinerant, unfixed, and impossible to get one’s bearings in, save for the guidance of some celestial body.
I’m moving through the dark
Of a long black night
Just moving with the moon
And the light it shines
And I’m thinking of a place
And it feels so very real
Just moving through the dark
Love needs a place to give it life, to contextualize it, and enable it. The implication of this can be found in the titular chorus line: “I’m thinking of a place, and it feels so very real”. It doesn’t matter if it really is. Granduciel indicated in an interview that Little Bend was simply a place he found on a map and enjoyed reading about — “it’s kind of this trailer park, but almost like a destination”. The song reads like a travelogue but, like most travelogues, complicates the relationship between reality and imagination. All places are refracted by our minds, by the things that stood out to us.
It’s not important whether the place exists: the point is that we envision it. Reviewing A Deeper Understanding, Mark Richardson wrote for Pitchfork that
“thinking of a place” — somewhere where you can lose yourself, get out of your own head, somewhere else — is what the whole record is ultimately about. A different songwriter — someone like Neil Young, say — might sketch out what this place looks like, tell us about who we might find there. But Granduciel can’t, or doesn’t want to.
Anyone who has fond memories of a lover in their past, or who searches for one in their future, will be familiar with this emotional illiteracy. Of course, the kinds of places we dream of are pre-formed by the cultural repository of ideals we grow up around — but often, what makes them so alluring is impossible to properly communicate. They just sit there, as models in our minds. A California sunset, a Nairobi street corner, a Tokyo back alley. Or something simpler, like the river at the edge of your hometown. What draws us to them is just out of reach.
The adolescent ‘holiday romance’ is just one example of the deep indebtedness of the heart to particular places. Some of us travel across the world to be with loved ones; others find themselves accumulating romantic experience as they travel. Many people, it turns out, use apps like Tinder for this purpose: its so-called Passport function allows users to find potential dates even before the trip has started.
They’re thinking of a place. Their destination is only properly reached when sitting across a table from someone, eyes twinkling, or when walking through it with someone who knows it, who is at home in it. Someone who prevents us from being a stranger.
This act of imagining love, and all of its correlates, as something coinciding with—yes, only possible within — a particular kind of place, is tremendously powerful. As Richardson noted, it may be impossible to render in words. Granduciel’s music, on the other hand, captures it with significant precision.