Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 54)
As the diehard music fan ages he begins to suffer a creeping feeling of “It’s all been done”. It starts simply when all the new bands start sounding like lesser versions of the old bands. Then you find yourself diving into old favorites rather than chancing new releases. Soon it’s full nostalgia collapse, when new music is brought up around you, you disparage it while bemoaning the loss of the “good old days” when music was real and singers could sing. But culture’s careless marathon carries on even if you fall. There will always be someone more driven, more ambitious, more excited to discover or create the next evolutionary musical step. Music waits for none.
Life Without Building’s 2001 debut Any Other City
is both a document of a group of people trying to come at indie rock in a way that nobody had before and a remedy to those that believe it’s all been done. You’ve never heard anything like this before.
There’s a clear contrast that divides Life Without Buildings. On one hand you have Will Bradley, Chris Evans, and Robert Johnson forming the band. Their work is patient, rich in melody, never brash, and has roots in bands like Galaxie 500 and The Sundays. On the other, is Sue Tompkins. She’s lightning personified. She leaps, skips, hops, and bounces through the barriers of limited concepts like verses and choruses. Her roots are in beat poetry and spoken word but you’ll never found anyone that sounds quite like her.
Tompkins’ voice is limited and unlimited at the same time. There’s no dizzying vocal runs being performed here (Well, vocal runs in the traditional sense anyway) but she can traverse a universe of emotion in four words. “New Town”’s chorus of “Looking in your eyes!” goes from ecstatic to intense to mystified just through repetition and phrasing. Lines that scan as non-sequiturs on paper become enraptured with meaning when she navigates them (“I saw you today you were like snow”, “Every color of you”). She flits through so many emotional spheres with such efficiency, wonder, and speed that if you were to ask me what Life Without Buildings sounded like the only thing I could really say is “Life”.
But as adept as Tompkins’ is at expressing joy, she’s equally talented at relaying weary sadness. “Sorrow” paints an expansive portrait of a long breakup with disconnected couplets meeting to form a larger whole. “Your phone calls/Don't think they're wearing me out/They're not”, goes the half hearted reassurance but later, “You’re beautiful but you’re going to slip away [...] Holding you is like the new past.” Gentle closer “Daylighting” plays like the memory of a long gone lifetime, “Close the summer, I don’t want lessons.”
All of Life Without Building’s strengths get wrapped up on a song so good it makes the rest of Any Other City
sound like rising and falling action around it. “The Leanover” begins with a softly repeated “If I lose you, If I lose you, if I lose you”, each bit compressed into one word so it sounds like “eef-ai-loos”, and rushes through a climax so unique (“In the time takes sliding back, in the time takes sliding back [...] he’s the shaker baby!”) it plays like you’ve heard it before, like the memory of a friend you haven't seen in decades.
Life Without Buildings never had a breakthrough moment. No trendy soundtrack placement, no use in commercial placement, no nothing. But this enhances the mystery of their only studio effort. It feels like something that's being created in real time everytime you listen to it, just for you. As if one more listen is going to unlock the great meaning of its tumble of words. It never does but I’m always thrilled to shove this album into the hands of whoever I can. Because no matter how many times I do, they never see it coming.