The first thing that is going to strike most people listening to Life Without Buildings are the vocals, so let’s not start there. I’ve read excellent writing on Any Other City that treat Sue Tompkins’ voice and the other elements of the short-lived Glasgow band’s music as almost occurring in separate spheres, but to the extent that’s true it’s because it wasn’t until they recorded their first demo that Robert Johnston, Chris Evans, and Will Bradley (guitar, bass, drums, respectively) could actually hear what she was singing. The first three quarters of Life Without Buildings were an attempt to make music that didn’t fit in with prevailing indie rock trends in the city more than a decade ago by members of Glasgow’s thriving art scene who had no interest in making “art rock”. In the instrumental parts of these songs, you can tell they succeeded: supple and spiky, seemingly equally inspired by the Smiths and post-rock, this is music that feels both pleasingly complex and totally natural, the kind of thing that makes most power trios sound clumsy and obvious by comparison. With the addition of Tompkins, brought in to add whatever she felt like, that sturdy structure found its perfect complement in one of the most riveting singers of the past two decades.
Her technique, which Tompkins still works with in her art, consists essentially of not taking language for granted. Plenty of singers will throw oblique imagery into their lyrics, but few will worry away at images and ideas and words and even syllables the way Tompkins does on Any Other City. Sometimes it’s like hearing an actor work through their lines, searching for the right emotional tone; sometimes it’s more like the things that might loop through your own head when you’re distraught, or ecstatic, or shaken to your core.
For some listeners, initial exposure to Life Without Buildings can be bewildering or even unpleasant, but it doesn’t take many listens before the initial, almost manic impression Tompkins gives on most of these songs settles into something more familiar, more like an intense conversation with a close friend. And when it does, it becomes clear that, in addition to other virtues, (and inseparable from the way the rest of the band gives her music that is both wonderful in its own right and perfectly suited to what she’s doing) Tompkins’ approach means that she can get things to signify in a way many singers can’t manage. Certain phrases become charged with emotional meaning even as the denotation slips away or was never there to begin with: “my lips are sealed!” “he’s the shaker baby,” “eyes like lotus leaves, no not even like ... lotus leaves,” “every colour of you fall I step out,” “the right stuff, the riiiiiight stuff” ... probably everyone who loves this album has their own collection. By the time “New Town” builds from things “happening again in a slow diagonal” to Tompkins yelling “do do what you have to do, do it!”, the fact that Life Without Buildings is essentially singing in a private language only tangentially related to our shared one (a shift recapitulated in their deceptively complex music made from the most standard possible rock band setup) is firmly secondary to how effective that dialect is at conveying emotion.
Certainly, if you want a bring your own narrative to Any Other City it works as a portrait of a relationship dissolving, although the closing, tender “Sorrow” works to both show that Life Without Buildings could be just as affecting without their normal caffeinated rush and that the picture, like real life, is too complicated to boil down into something simple. Even the best accounts of the band’s history don’t give any reason why Life Without Buildings broke up a year after releasing their only album; we certainly don’t really know whether these particular songs are all about the same situation, are autobiographical or not, and so on. In a real sense it doesn’t matter; these four people wanted to do something new, and they did, and it feels as new in 2014 as it did in 2001.
The vinyl reissue of Any Other City isn’t particularly deluxe partly because there isn’t much to add; a fine live album was released in 2007, and you could scrape some extra songs from there and old singles (this reissue includes a 7-inch with alternative versions of “The Leanover” and “New Town,” for example) but the 10 songs here are still the band’s strongest work and don’t need to be augmented. Partly because nobody’s really followed up on their work, Life Without Buildings feels like a little glimpse into another world; it would have been wonderful to see more, but what we have also feels definitive. Near the end of “Let’s Get Out” Tompkins starts repeating “look back and say that I didn’t come complete.” Fittingly enough, it sounds like she’s daring you to prove her wrong.
// Notes from the Road
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