There Are No Maps For This Part of The City is a love song about two people making a romantic connection in an unfamiliar place. In my head it’s set in Edinburgh or somewhere equally full of wide-eyed tourists, hence the reference to ‘no pull out guides to what we should do’. The lovers are surrounded by advice for visitors on what to do and where to go, but none of it is going to help them navigate this particular situation.
That’s because There Are No Maps For This Part Of The City is also a song about betrayal. The reason the narrator is feeling lost is that he’s cheating on someone else. This is easy to miss since it’s referred to only fleetingly, in the line ‘I never wanted to hurt anybody’ – a fact that says a lot about how little he’s thinking about the person he’s supposed to be with, or considering how she might feel about all this.
The more distance I have from this song, the more this detail bothers me. It’s quite a manipulative, self-justifying song – you’re clearly supposed to feel that the person singing it is doing the right thing, and that his hesitancy (‘maybe if I love you at all I should let go of your hand now’) is because he is a fundamentally decent, thoughtful person, wrestling with his conscience, rather than a coward and a liar. It even has that classic love song staple, the lush string arrangement, which begins just in time to distract you from the admission of betrayal. I find myself wondering what I was really doing with the final line, ‘is that sound the world exploding or is it just this bar closing?’. It suggests that, subconsciously, the person in the song knows he has set off a loud and destructive bomb in his life but is choosing to dismiss it as the harmless background noise of shutters slamming shut or rubbish bins being moved. To be fair, it is also a love song; it’s not describing a one-night stand or a fleeting encounter, it’s about the end of one thing and the beginning of another, something that is often messy and painful. But he’s clearly not dealing with it very well and in hindsight I’m embarrassed for him.
One of the first songs I remember hearing about betrayal was Run To You by Bryan Adams. The music is supposed to be thrilling, like the affair it describes, but the lyrics are incredibly cruel. I’m thinking in particular of ‘I know her love is true but it’s so damn easy making love to you’, and the opening line, which sums up the spirit of the whole song: ‘She says her love for me could never die, that’d change if she ever found out about you and I’. In some ways I quite like how honest it is (with the listener, at least). It doesn’t paint Bryan in a good light at all. Running to someone doesn’t sound romantic, it sounds needy and desperate, and the more times the words ‘run to you’ are repeated the more needy and desperate Bryan sounds. There’s actually only one line that seems like a justification: ‘oh but her love is cold’. Otherwise it seems like Bryan is completely aware of what he’s doing and just doesn’t care.
The most extreme version if this that I can think of is It Wasn’t Me by Shaggy, one of the most appallingly funny songs ever written about betrayal, for the sheer brass neck of continuing to deny you’re cheating on your girlfriend even after she’s caught you ‘butt naked banging on the bathroom floor’ with another woman. Which is better? A song that tries to find beauty and poignancy in an act of betrayal, effectively making excuses for it, or a song that bluntly tells it like it is, like Amy Winehouse singing ‘I told you I was trouble, you know I’m no good’? Perhaps it depends on how often you’ve been betrayed and how often you’ve betrayed someone else.
A footnote: six years after it was released, There Are No Maps For This Part Of The City was used in a play called Jumpy at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, directed by my friend Cora Bissett. The scene Cora used it for had nothing to do with infidelity, it was about a mother having a difficult time with her daughter and trying to find a way through it. I quite enjoyed the irony of a song about someone destroying a relationship becoming the soundtrack to someone desperately trying to protect and preserve one.