Your First, Your Last, Your Only Contact
Celebrating fifteen years of
Life Without Buildings
by gareth ware
“We did our job, and that’s the story” begins the final bit of dialogue in The Clash documentary ‘Westway To The World’, bassist Paul Simonon’s tone falling somewhere between matter-of-fact and downright dismissive “Now we’re gone, and that’s it. And suits me fine”.
In a world where everyone and their grandmother have recently reformed or come out of hibernation – be it the perennially volatile The Replacements, longtime recluses My Bloody Valentine and The Avalanches, LCD Soundsystem reneging on their great Shut Up And Play The Hits finale or Sleater-Kinney coming out blazing as though the past ten years hadn’t happened – it’s worth noting the degree to which the Clash kept their word, post-split. Simonon and Joe Strummer popped up in a music video for Mick Jones’ post-Clash project Big Audio Dynamite and Jones unexpectedly joined Strummer onstage at a benefit for striking firemen mere weeks before the latter’s death, but that was it, despite a number of inevitable big-buck festival offers.
But with five albums in six years (or six in eight if you include the unfortunately named, execrable Cut The Crap which featured Strummer and Simonon only alongside some hired hands and over-zealous input from manager Bernie Rhodes) their ‘arrive, make your point and then leave again’ pop art statement pales in comparison with that of Glasgow-based four-piece Life Without Buildings who burst forth in 2001 with “Any Other City” and save for a posthumously-released live album (recorded in Sydney’s Annandale Hotel at the height of their powers but only offered to the wider world in 2007) were never heard from again. It’s a record whose enduring nature has come from the aura of mystery both within and surrounding it, its fans a collective of people bound together in revelling in its wilfully opaque nature. It’s an album that gives little away, and that’s where its appeal lies. One person enthralled by it was former Shrag front-woman Helen King. For what would prove to be the band’s final album, Canines, she sought out the same producer and studio as LWB had used for their sole release – not only that, but in this fascinating article written not long after Shrag’s split she makes one of the finest attempts going at summing up its singular brilliance. With the album having turned 15 earlier this year, there seemed no better time to, between us, offer some sort of reappraisal.
Any Other City is not one of those albums that eases the listener in gently. ‘PS Exclusive’ bursts forth from the traps with an skittering, breathless energy – to this day it sounds urgent and vital. The 2000s would go on to become something of a cavalcade of post-punk stylistic nods to the extent that in a recent Bose mini documentary on Bloc Party’s ‘Banquet’ Kele Orekere matter-of-factly admits to re-appropriating the drum fills from New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’. It was prevalent enough for Carrie Brownstein to pen Sleater-Kinney’s acerbic ‘Entertain’ in protest which, in a fantastic bit of scheduling, they played at their first UK show in ten years at 6Music’s festival while Interpol – a band a member of staff at my local record store referred to as ‘Joy Division for little kids’ – played on another stage. While it’s true to an extent that LWB could be classifiable in such company, even if they did predate it during their 2001 heyday, they, at the same time, make it their own. It’s at once warm and rich, and sparse and futuristic and even in 2016 it feels new, intriguing and exciting; ‘New Town’ burns with the intensity of provincial frustration, ‘Sorrow’ drifts by with a late-night haziness, ’14 Days’ is propelled by a motorik strum.
For King, her first encounter with Life Without Buildings was one which left a lasting impression, as she says that “I can remember the first time I heard Any Other City very, very, clearly and – thinking about it now – there’s not many records I can say that for. It was a very arresting first listen. Around that time I was really into a lot of post-punk stuff like Pram and Trans Am and Slint, and then I heard the LWB record and musically it chimed with that completely but was somehow warmer and richer and more challenging. And then,” she adds “this weird and beautiful vocal work kicks in which just galvanises each track one after the other, and you feel like the voice and the words and the instrumentation really shouldn’t hang together at all but they really emphatically do. I just hadn’t heard anything like it. Still haven’t.”
Fantastic though it undoubtedly is, for a lot of listeners the musical direction that at once sounds warm and inviting and cold and distant at the same time took second billing to Sue Tompkins’ vocals, which at the drop of a hat go from Jonathan Richman-esque wonderment to something altogether more thrilling and visceral. At their most effervescent – like the breakdown in ‘Let’s Get Out’ where she passionately yelps “Look back and say that I didn’t! LOOK BACK!”, ‘Juno’s “For you, SWEET THING” or the way she suddenly bursts forth in ‘New Town’ to claim she’s “Looking in your EYES!” – it packs a brand of burning urgency last seen at a Cape Canaveral launch pad.
But it’s the delivery and content that stick in the mind, as Tompkins stutters, backtracks and repeats flashes of imagery and emotion to create something at once arresting and confounding. If her tone at its peak is reminiscent of a rocket launch, then the way she expresses herself feels like a quick-fire blast of cognitive starbursts, each vying to burn brighter than the last. Just go and look, in plain black and white, at the lyrics to ‘The Leanover’ or album-closing ‘Sorrow’ to see the degree with which Tompkins plays with language in a linguistic equivalent of David Byrne’s Stop Making Sense lamp-dance, setting the words (and her own thoughts) on a freewheeling ride which she makes sure to periodically catch and bring back to an even keel before it goes totally feral.
Reminiscing on how Life Without Buildings influenced her own work (try listening to Shrag’s ‘Rabbit Kids’, bearing King’s Tompkins-esque vocal timbre, and arguing that it doesn’t sounds like LWB having a stab at an out-and-out pop song), King says that “despite what personally feels like a genuine connection or continuum, there’s a lot that separates Shrag from Life Without Buildings. Shrag were whores for choruses and hooks and middle eights whereas Life Without Buildings chased down their highs via subtler and less structured roads.” She does however cites Tompkins’ use of words and vocals as the elements of LWB’s ouevre that had the greatest effect on her as a musician and songwriting. On the former topic she attests that “I think it’s probably fair to say that LWB’s influence on Shrag is felt most strongly through my contribution as vocalist and lyricist. I definitely located something familiar in her voice and the way she used it – it is utterly distinctive, and rather than try to cloak or modulate the things that make it so distinctive, Tompkins instead accentuates them. Tompkins’ work on Any Other City proved you could arrive at something very powerful and original by inhabiting the things that might seem like limitations. Like having a weird voice. I loved that about her writing, and it was definitely part of the stuff that fired me up when the whole Shrag thing came into being. ”
On the topic of LWB’s use of language, she adds that “it was certainly through listening to bands like LWB that I opened up to different ways of thinking about lyrics and songwriting. I was drawn to the way Tompkins trades in unusual pairings/juxtapositions/semantic dismantling, and how she makes use of repetitions with slight modifications. There was a sense of recognition there, and the infatuation with words matched with the skewed playfulness she shows on that album were factors definitely at stake in my own songwriting….the way Sue Tompkins uses language on that record was (and remains) completely compelling to me – there’s a deconstructive impulse at work there that really pushes my buttons. I think that on that record LWB map out what are really quite intricate narratives/relationships/emotional states, but they do it in this impressionistic, non-linear fashion which always leaves the precise picture just beyond accessibility. And I think that degree of obliqueness is a powerful thing because it works to lure rather than repel.”
And that is essentially the biggest draw of Any Other City, fifteen years on. In a cultural landscape that, in the cases of Darkstar and Lemonade, is increasingly treating music and art as a puzzle to be solved rather than savoured Any Other City still burns brightly as an example of the thrill of the unknown and the underlying excitement of never truly knowing what’s going on. In the same way that listening to Gwenno or Super Furry Animals causes non-Welsh speakers to react out of instinct and feeling rather than perceived knowledge or understanding, so it is with LWB’s solitary release. Just look at ’14 Days’ and its simultaneous gleeful abandon at parting ways and concern for the other party (“Don’t you know I’m leaving you in 14 days, take all the precious things and nothing less”), the reflective contentment of ‘Sorrow’ at odds with its title or the way that ‘New Town’ filters the titular provincial living not through the wistful yearning of The Clientele but instead through wild-eyed intensity. It’s an album that functions via sensation and a defiant impenetrability rather than full disclosure and lyrical hand-holding, and it remains all the more exciting as a result.
Of course, it arguably landed at the perfect time. Coming in 2001, just before the explosion in British guitar music, meant it avoided the decade’s later breaking down of barriers between band and audience which would doubtless have ruined its mystique. Similarly, had it come out ten years later it would have suffered death by think-piece. Instead, its enigmatic aura is preserved, in part due to its release coming at a point where music journalism and the internet were still working out how to become bedfellows. Thus, a record that exists very much on its own terms also exists without period contextualisation and theorising. “I feel like its impenetrability is the source of its power for sure,” says King “but it’s only really impenetrable in the way that any other person is. Your best pal or your lover or your sister, they’re all just big bundles of codes and fears and fragments of memories and you can only ever get flashes of insight into what it’s like to be them. Any Other City is a pop album that describes those fleeting images and exchanges and moments but doesn’t try to make sense of them – it feels like a very intimate record to me, more conspiratorial than confounding.”
In the same way Summer Camp’s Elizabeth Sankey waded into the gun control debate by tweeting the immortal “I don’t care if it’s your “right”, it’s my right to stick crayons in my ears, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea” so too does Any Other City illustrate that just because we have the ability to have access to every inner working of a record sometimes – sometimes – it’s better that such things are left untouched. And if you need any further convincing, the intoxicating, rousing thrill ride of Any Other City – even a decade and a half after release – holds the answer.
Or, as King concludes: “Tompkins’ words are often clotted with meaning rather than being emptied of it, so the process of listening to the record is one that involves you getting these densely knotted clumps of emotion tumbling out at you, and you might not have a lucid or cogent understanding of them, but you definitely have an intuitive one…Tracks like ‘New Town’ and ‘The Leanover’ were slow dazzles that gradually became etched into the emotional landscape of my twenties – you know those insidious kind of songs that creep around and into everything? That was the whole of Any Other City for me.”